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What do modern Jewish thinkers make of Christianity?

Is Christianity in their eyes still the oppressive, pervasive presence that medieval Jews experienced as Christendom? Is Christianity held to be that which fills the hearts of Gentiles with implacable contempt for Jews? Or is it a chastened, limited, historical and cultural presence, knocked down to size by secular modernity, infected by modernity and therefore ambivalent in its attitude toward Jews? In other words, is Christianity a once-powerful, now largely superseded force or is it a still-powerful, enduring factor in our history? In yet other words, is there a road—as some have suggested—from Golgotha to Auschwitz, such that a still-powerful Christianity bears a heavy responsibility for the Holocaust? Or was Christianity too a victim of a movement more pagan than Christian?

Are Christians and Jews, as men and women of faith, fellow travelers and fellow strangers in the strange new world of faithless modernity? Does modernity impose new conditions on the ancient Christian-Jewish relationship, so that now they find themselves with common goals or common enemies? Or are Christians, even under the conditions of modernity, still the masters of this common Western house and Jews still the invited guests?

Immediately we can see that any satisfactory answer to the question, “What do modern Jewish thinkers make of Christianity?” involves the answer to another related, yet fundamental matter, “What do modern Jewish thinkers make of modernity?” The theological question of how Judaism ought to relate to Christianity and the social-moral question of how Jews ought to relate to Christians both rest on a prior Jewish judgment about the character of the age, about the nature of the historical juncture that Jew and Christian share. In speaking of Christianity, then, the Jew must reckon with the character of the moment in which the historical trajectories of Judaism and Christianity cross.

The nature of the ground is at least as important, if not more important, than the nature of the figure. The backdrop of the world in which Jews encounter Christians, and Judaism encounters Christianity, is at least as important as the particular features of Christianity itself. For a Jew, I am suggesting, it is at least as important to ask, “What does it mean to believe today?” and “What difference do non-Jewish believers make in a world like ours?” as it is to ask, “What do Christians believe?” I want to echo here David Novak’s view that any judgment a Jew makes about Christianity involves a judgment about the world Jews and Christians now inhabit, particularly with regard to the status of belief and belief-based ethics in that world. Such a judgment, of course, reveals something of the one who makes it.

There are at least two different scenarios in modern Jewish thought with regard to the status of Christianity, relative to the character of the modern world.

In the first scenario, our shared world is essentially and durably secular, neither Jewish nor Christian. A de-religionized world has developed in Western history, removing Christianity from its medieval throne. Extra or meta-religious standards exist against which Judaism can judge Christianity or—to be honest—Judaism and Christianity can both be judged. The Jewish observer acquiesces in this now several-centuries-old process, greeting the predominance of the secular with tacit or prophetic approval. Against the emergence of the secular, revealed religions like Christianity and Judaism stand on equal legal, cultural, and, in a sense, epistemological ground. That is to say, modernity renders all revealed religions equally suspect from a philosophical point of view simply because the nonreligious intellectual terrain from which religion is viewed and judged dominates the intellectual field.

Significantly, however, for many modern Jews Judaism sustains itself within the perspective of modern secularism better than Christianity. Christianity seems less in accord with the anti-supernatural, scientific character of modern reason. Judaism seems strangely empowered by modernity—in fact, is thought to be the ideal religion of modernity. This theme was particularly pronounced among American Reform thinkers of the past century. They viewed Reform Judaism as uniquely in accord with American modernity, while Christianity, by contrast, actually impeded the fulfillment of American destiny by tying America to Old World anti-democratic traditions and dogmas. In Europe, leading German Jewish thinkers, such as Moses Mendelssohn, Hermann Cohen, and Leo Baeck exemplify this view. The emerging or emplaced character of modernity militates against Christianity and favors Judaism, often for civic or political-theological reasons.

In the second scenario, our shared world, despite its manifestly secular appearance, remains beneath the surface powerfully religious. Modernity is the story not of religion lost, but of religion transformed. The messianic longings of Christian or Jew became in the fearsome alchemy of history the realizable political Utopias of Communists and fascists; the Jewish insistence on linking thought and action became the praxis of revolutionaries like Marx; the Christian mission to the nations became the manifest destiny of sundry Western nation states. Once Russians went to the monasteries of Zagorsk or Kiev to adore the relics of sainted monks. In modern times—at least until recently—they went to Red Square to adore the relics of Vladimir Illych Lenin. The symbols change, but the ineluctable human religiosity at the core remains. The constitutive human hunger for ultimacy of purpose, transcendent confirmation of values, solace in the face of death, remains. If the human experience is essentially a religious one, then secular modernity is less a religion-free zone than a religion of its own, a religion of radical this-worldliness. Secular modernity, with its careful effort to bracket ultimate issues of life’s meaning and goal out of civil life, acquires the status of a surrogate religion and becomes a source of profound disquietude for those thinkers who have pierced its banal surface and discovered its mythic core.

But the repressed returns. As human beings cannot live indefinitely in so metaphysically depleted a universe, the search for authentic religious expression becomes urgent. Secular modernity must be transcended. For those Jews who find the character of modernity no less religion-intensive than its predecessors, Christianity becomes an important datum. The Jew might find in its enduring reality a significance for the human future no less crucial than that of Judaism. Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber exemplify this subversive perspective respecting modernity. Their estimation of Christianity is consequently more positive than Mendelssohn’s, Cohen’s, or Baeck’s.

The first scenario—acquiescence in the predominance of the secular sphere and consideration of Christianity against a durable modern backdrop—finds its most paradigmatic and seminal expression in the thought of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Mendelssohn, in a sense the first “modern Jew,” moved to Berlin, the Prussian capital, as a young man, and soon acquired an international reputation as a philosopher of the German Enlightenment. The phenomenon was altogether unprecedented. Not since medieval times had a Jewish intellectual commanded the attention and respect of the Gentile world. Known as the “Jewish Socrates,” Mendelssohn wrote on aesthetics and ethics. His friendship with the writer Lessing inspired the drama Nathan the Wise, a classic brief for broad-mindedness in matters of religion.

Owing to his extraordinary achievements in the field of philosophy, the Royal Prussian Academy nominated Mendelssohn for membership, an indication of the high level of acceptance he had achieved among like-minded intelligentsia. A new, a modern world, it seemed, was aborning. The nomination, however, had to be approved by the King, Frederick II. Frederick, an enlightened despot whose enlightenment failed him when it came to Jews, had nominated Catherine the Great, Czarina of Russia, and did not want to insult her by inviting her to belong to the same academy as a Jew. Frederick vetoed Mendelssohn’s membership. Mendelssohn reportedly said to his sponsors, “Sirs, it is better to be nominated by you and turned down by the king, than to be nominated by the king and turned down by you.”

This disappointment was not the last Mendelssohn would experience. But insofar as he belonged to an elite international circle of intellectuals, a world in which reason, culture, and refined sensibility—rather than tradition and tribalism prevailed, he sublimated his disappointments and took this emerging, neutral Gelehrter republik (Republic of the Learned) as the coming shape of the modernizing world. Mendelssohn dedicated his mature years to enabling his fellow Jews to enter it as well. He believed that the acceptance that he found would be extended to other Jews if only they could learn German and think and act like moderns.

Unlike that famous or infamous Jewish philosopher of the previous century, Baruch Spinoza, Mendelssohn did not abandon his Judaism. He remained a traditional Jew all his life. Yet his philosophy made no place for his Judaism and he appeared an anomaly to his public. All of this changed in 1769 when a Swiss theologian, Johann Gasper Lavater, publicly challenged Mendelssohn, in the Preface of an apologetic work on Christianity, to either refute the truth of Christianity or convert to it. Mendelssohn tried strenuously to avoid entering into public debate on so delicate an issue, but other challenges followed. The challenges forced him to articulate, not only a view of Christianity, but a philosophy of Judaism. His understanding of both religions and of their interrelationship was worked out against the background of the neutral, secular sphere which, although threatened by painful intrusions, remained normative and ideal for him.

Mendelssohn grants that Jesus was a moral teacher at home in the universe of Judaism, but the Christian transformation of Jesus into a messiah and savior goes beyond the evidence. Indeed, Christianity as a whole takes a leap which a Jew—or a modern man—really ought not to make: its stress on the miraculous and its emphasis on dogmatic formulations of faith offend against reason. While miracles and dogmas are intelligible to faithful insiders, they can hardly persuade rational outsiders. And the neutral, rational outside stance has now become normative.

Mendelssohn’s endorsement of independent, critical reason is not a fully secular stance. As a religious Aufklaerer, Mendelssohn is convinced that reason is God-given. God has given all human beings sufficient guidance to achieve their eternal happiness through the light of inherent reason. Christianity’s burdensome dogmas and fantastic miracles obscure, rather than refine, that inner, saving light. Mendelssohn furthermore believes that Judaism neither has nor requires such dogmas. Judaism is a rational religion that does not rely on a revelation that runs counter to common sense. God revealed to Moses and Israel a law, not a set of beliefs. Nothing in the law contradicts the light of reason. This is not true of Christianity, however. Thus, Mendelssohn implies, Judaism is superior to Christianity and more fit for the modern spirit. Sensing, however, that this emerging modern spirit might threaten both religions, Mendelssohn urges his Christian interlocutors not to challenge Jews with charges of supposed contradictions in Judaism, but to work together with them to nullify the threat. Were our religions properly interpreted in an Enlightenment manner, no discrepancies between Scripture and Reason could exist.

He grounded the future relationship of Jews and Christians, therefore, in a common dedication to a meta-religious truth to which all good men could give assent. Although not naive about the reality of anti-Semitism, which he had personally experienced, or the obstacles to Jewish Emancipation and acculturation, he believed that the future belonged to a neutral, secular sphere constituted by enlightened values acceptable to all. The blueprint for that polity—Mendelssohn’s brief for religious liberty—is called, not accidentally, Jerusalem. To live in a properly enlightened Berlin would be as if to live in Jerusalem. A stronger validation of secular modernity from within committed Judaism can hardly be found.

Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) resembled his illustrious predecessor, Mendelssohn, in many ways. Cohen was a world-renowned philosopher, a founder of the influential neo-Kantian school, and a professor at Marburg University. Cohen achieved high honors as a Jew at a time when German universities were the most prestigious in the world and when modern, racial anti-Semitism was on the rise. Like Mendelssohn, he was nurtured in the rich atmosphere of traditional Judaism, training in his youth for the rabbinate. Similarly, his philosophical concerns led him to neglect Judaism—in Cohen’s case, both intellectually and behaviorally—until later in his life. After retiring from Marburg, Cohen spent his last years developing a powerful philosophy of Judaism while lecturing at the Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin.

The Jewish philosophy of Cohen’s last phase differs from his systematic neo-Kantian work at Marburg. Originally, Cohen believed in the autonomy and creativity of human reason. Unlike Mendelssohn, Cohen did not understand reason to be God-given. Reason is like a god unto itself. Reason creates the human world, shaping raw scraps of sensory reality into a habitable, intelligible cosmos. Ethics is the final category for man, the highest expression of what it is to be human. Religion is a mere tutor to ethics, a myth-making pedagogue for those who are not yet capable of abstract, rational thought. God is at best an idea, a hypothesis that gives us confidence that the world in which we strive to be ethical will last long enough for our ethics to bear fruit. In Cohen’s early phase, human beings must strive to bring about the triumph of ethics. That triumph ultimately is synonymous with a united humanity, living in justice. Cohen believed that the German nation was at the cutting edge of this historic movement and that at its conclusion, Judaism and Christianity—which were both essentially concerned with this task anyway—would merge into a single, supportive, civic faith.

Cohen’s Marburg system cannot be considered Jewish thought. It is paradigmatically modern and secular. In his later work, however, he radically reverses his position. Yet in some ways he never overcomes the distinctively modern, secular judgments of Marburg.

Cohen’s Jewish thought is far more theocentric than his earlier systematic work. He denies autonomy to reason and roots the human world in God. The Marburg system culminates in ethics; the Berlin system culminates in God, in religion, in Judaism. Cohen holds on to his messianic expectation of an achievable kingdom of justice, but he comes to understand the messianic task in terms of a partnership between a living God and his human creatures, rather than as a work of human practice alone. As the messianic role of Judaism in history became increasingly clear for him, Cohen came to see Christianity as an imperfect contributor, if not an impediment, to the messianic process.

Cohen was especially concerned with specifying the nature of the relationship between man and God, and with affirming the unity of humanity. He faulted Christianity on both counts. First, Christianity has elevated Jesus into a God-man who mediates between the human and the divine. This was harmful and unnecessary. Stress on Jesus interrupts the mutuality between God and man which Judaism knows to be available to all. The mediator actually distances man from God. Man is correlated with God through reason, a panhuman possession, not through Jesus.

A second and related problem is this: although Christianity, borrowing from Judaism, understands the unity of humanity, it perversely fragments that unity. Unlike Judaism, which acknowledges that all the righteous of the nations have a share in the world to come, Christianity restricts God’s grace to those who submit to the mediator. Christianity takes one step forward from pagan antiquity by asserting the messianic unity of humanity, then takes two steps back by qualifying and restricting it. Cohen, of course, does not see the uniqueness and exclusivity of the people Israel as a disruption of this human unity, for he understands Israel to exist for the sake of all the peoples. He understands the uniqueness of God to require that one unique people, Israel, be wholly dedicated to bringing the world to God.

In Cohen’s mature thought, then, Christianity receives an ambivalent appraisal. Judaism is, as he put it, the “religion of reason,” the religion that is fully expressive of the dynamic, personal correlation between man and God. Judaism is the religion that expresses the divine-human collaboration in bringing about the kingdom of God. Christianity, insofar as it take elements from Judaism, participates in this redemptive process, but it also impedes the process for it is not a religion of emergent, moral reason.

Although Cohen’s thought shifted dramatically back to explicitly Jewish concerns, in many ways his vision remains profoundly secular. The kingdom he envisions is basically an enlightened, socialist democracy, where—at the risk of glibness—German is spoken. Judaism is validated insofar as it contributes to this eventuality. Those elements of Judaism that are unassimilable to rationalism, Jewish mysticism for example, are discarded. Christianity is judged by its compatibility with this rational, essentially secular ideal. Like Mendelssohn, Cohen has justified Judaism through an extrinsic, philosophical ideal and then judged Christianity for its failure to approach that norm. Although like Mendelssohn a religious thinker, his categories are borrowed from the secular sphere, which pro tanto becomes both judge and jury for Judaism and Christianity.

Cohen died in 1918 still convinced that his beloved Germany was the bearer of an Enlightenment whose Doppelganger was Judaism. Cohen’s disciple, the saintly Leo Baeck (1873-1956), had no such illusions. Baeck, the last great leader of Liberal Judaism in Germany, was called by fate to stand with his people in their darkest hours. Declining numerous offers to emigrate, Baeck led German Jewry in the 1930s. Deported to Terezin concentration camp in 1943, he served as a source of spiritual resistance. He settled in London after his liberation in 1945 and continued his rabbinic leadership until his death.

Baeck was a prolific writer, and in his lifelong output the relationship between Judaism and Christianity underwent numerous treatments. He wrote of the Gospels as “documents of Jewish faith” and saw Jesus as a native Jewish figure who must be reclaimed by the history of Jewish faith. Jesus, he wrote, was “a man with noble features who lived in the land of the Jews in tense and excited times and helped and labored and suffered and died: a man out of the Jewish people who walked on Jewish paths with Jewish faith and hopes. His spirit was at home in the Holy Scriptures, and his imagination and thought were anchored there; and he proclaimed and taught the word of God because God had given it to him to hear and to preach . . . . We behold a man who is Jewish in every feature and trait of his character, manifesting in every particular what is good and pure in Judaism. This man could have developed as he came to be only on the soil of Judaism; and only on this soil, too, could he find his disciples and followers. Here alone, in this Jewish sphere . . . could this man live his life and meet his death—a Jew among Jews. Jewish history and Jewish reflection may not pass him by . . . .”

This positive assessment and reclamation of Jesus is tied to an extraordinarily sharp polemic against Christianity, however. Baeck distinguishes between Jesus and the Church, Jesus and Paul, in a manner thoroughly exploited by earlier generations of German Jewish historians and polemicists. Jesus was authentically Pharisaic, exemplifying the classical ethical rigorism of the rabbis. Paul, however, introduced romantic, Greco-Oriental elements into Jesus’ religion. The historic church, by the end of the first century already dominated by Paulinism, separates itself from Jesus’ Judaism, indeed from Jesus. The Gospels themselves are thoroughly overlaid with Pauline distortion and the original Jewish message must be extracted from the text through applying a criterion of dissimilarity: Whatever does not agree with Paulinism belongs to the original Jewish Jesus.

In Baeck’s view, there are two types of religion: the classical and the romantic, or to use Nietzsche’s categories (which Baeck does not), the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Rabbinic Judaism is the lead historical example of the classical; Christianity exemplifies the romantic. Romantic religion luxuriates in a sense of world-weary powerlessness; it hungers for escape from dreary and deadening reality through ecstatic abandonment. Rules, duty, ethics are seen as meaningless shards of an earthbound consciousness. Myth, mysticism, loss of autonomy, renunciation of conscience and freedom for a headlong flight into an emotive beyond characterize romantic religion. “It wants to be seized and inspired from above,” Baeck wrote, “embraced by a flood of grace which should descend upon it to consecrate it and possess it—a will-less instrument of the wondrous ways of God.”

Against this type of religiosity, Baeck posits Judaism as the chief historical representative of classical religion. Classical religion is a sober piety of ethical idealism. Taking history seriously as the field of moral duty, classical religion eschews escapist fantasies of myth and subjectivity and dedicates itself to building a culture protective of human dignity. For the classical religionist, the Jew, religion is a fighting for freedom and justice in a strenuous process of wrestling with culture, a struggling to fulfill the commandment. Law is not despised. Law is the austere empire that must rule refractory reality province by province, commandment by commandment.

For the romantic, the Christian, the Law is cast off. Grace has already swept the self-absorbed sinner away into its present and coming order of perfection. Romantic religion thus “lacks any inner compulsion to approach political and economic life in order to make it more ethical and to drive it forward. Its indifference toward any earthly upward tendency has always made it easy for romantic religion to defend submission to every earthly yoke, even to preach it. From the Pauline exhortation, ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers,’ one has always and with the greatest of ease got to the point of first tolerating every despotism and of then soon consecrating it.”

Baeck wrote these words in 1938. He tied the Nazi catastrophe directly to the spiritual history of the West. He blamed Christianity, at least in its Catholic and Lutheran forms, for shaping the spiritual climate in which Nazism with its religion-like demand for total absorption and its religion-like promise of realized eschatology could arise. Nazism both fills the political vacuum romantic religion creates in its abandonment of ethics and history and offers a fitting political expression for those world-weary longings for a new world now.

This is an extraordinarily harsh indictment of Christianity. But synagogues burned in the background, and the Jews stood alone. Although Baeck revised his judgments somewhat after the war, his basic typology remained intact. Baeck fought against the secular order of his time with all his strength and—there can be no doubt—his weapons came from the arsenal of authentic Jewish spirit. Yet, in his theology at least, Baeck juxtaposed an idealized Judaism, a Judaism shorn of its own elements of romanticism, political passivity, and ahistoricity, to a caricatured Christianity. Baeck’s idealized Judaism was informed by some particularly Germanic components: Kantian ethics, for example. And Baeck’s arguments for Judaism’s superior (vis-à-vis Christianity’s) compatibility with a classic, Apollonian ideal sound like Cohen’s project of pairing Judaism with the history and religion of reason. In this way, Baeck must be seen as positing the standard against which both Judaism and Christianity are judged (and Christianity found wanting) on grounds rather independent of Judaism as such. It is the paradigm of “classical religion,” not, say, the halakhah, which provides the criterion for the judgment.

Mendelssohn, Cohen, and Baeck acquiesce in the modern project. They justly decry those features of modernity that threaten Jews and Judaism, linking the threatening elements with a Christianity not yet mastered. For each, a meta-religious standard serves as the criterion, yet the standard is not perceived as extrinsic. It is brought into the heart of Judaism as such. Judaism becomes modern Judaism and the transformation is celebrated. The inertia Christianity displays vis-à-vis this transformation is grounds for condemnation of the latter. The relationship between Jew and Christian is ideally that of moderns who are committed to, yet critical of, their own traditions in the name of supervening standards of judgment.

In Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, we encounter a fundamentally different attitude toward the modern and hence toward the Jewish and the Christian.

For Rosenzweig (1886-1929), the world constituted by secular modernity, by culture, by philosophy is at heart an inauthentic world. Philosophy, the emblem of the secular, arises in the dread of death and is an attempt to flee death by refuge in generality, in abstraction, in universality. The authentic individual shuns this illusory immortality by taking a stand in revealed religion, in Judaism or in Christianity. Here one comes to terms with what it means to be human. To be human is to stand in a mutual relationship with the world and with God. To be human is to experience the world and God redemptively approaching each other; to assist in the dawning of redemption through prayer and love. To stand outside of Judaism or Christianity in any of the postures of secular culture (or of other religions, for that matter) is to live broken and incomplete, outside of the redemptive process that Judaism and Christianity know and advance.

In Rosenzweig’s theology, reality is composed of three irreducible elements that progressively come into correct relationship with each other: man, world, and God. Creation, Revelation, and Redemption signify stages in this process of relating. Creation signifies God and world coming into relationship with one another. Revelation signifies God and man coming into relationship. At any stage in the process short of redemption, the internal relations between the elements are distorted and incomplete. Without revelation, for example, human beings exist in relationship with the world, but not with God. For such human beings, the Greeks or the Indians, there are gods, but they are the gods of mythology: worldly, capricious, anthropomorphic gods; gods whose wisdom and will are merely those of man.

Into the world as creation with its stymied men and gods, God discloses himself. God reveals himself to man not just as distant Creator, but as ever-present Lover. In accepting revelation, man discovers himself as ever-renewed soul, made human by his relationship with a loving God.

Ultimately, the world, related to God in Creation, and man, related to God in Revelation, come into fulfilled and harmonious relationship with one another in Redemption. The three irreducible elements—man, world, and God—achieve appropriate interrelatedness at the end of time. Redemption is promoted by human work: by the work of the two revelatory congregations, Judaism and Christianity each pursuing their revelatory destinies. Rosenzweig conceives of Judaism and Christianity as different but equal vehicles for the divine-human cooperation in Redemption. They are both bonded and broken; their complementarity and antagonism are marks of the unredeemed state of man, world, and God. Redemption will involve the overcoming of both Judaism and Christianity in a oneness of truth known to God alone. Until then, each has its partial truth; each has its unique, proleptically redemptive way. The Jewish way is to be outside of time and history, to tend a hidden garden, to biologically endure. The Christian way is to conquer all that is pagan including that paganism still alive in the Christian soul. The Christian masters history through mission. The Jew leaves history to the Christian and nurtures his own eternity. Judaism is the fire at the core of the “Star of Redemption.” Christianity is the rays spreading out into the world from the hidden Jewish core. Christianity needs Judaism for its fuel and Judaism needs Christianity for its historical efficacy as a redemptive force.

Rosenzweig casts the Jewish-Christian relationship and the character of Christianity on a vast metaphysical backdrop in which the unique social and intellectual features of modernity dissolve. Indeed, Rosenzweig began his journey of faith in a profound turning from secular modernity and its academic culture of relativism and historicism. On the verge of converting to Christianity, he discovered a living Judaism and then came to inhabit a theological world in which the secular was fully transcended. Christianity is seen as a powerful, vital historical force by no means relativized or subordinated to modernity. Indeed, history is Christian for Rosenzweig. The Jews are not an historical people.

Martin Buber (1878–1965), Rosenzweig’s friend and collaborator, is best known for his philosophy of dialogue. Buber sought to transcend the religious categories of normative, historical Judaism and to reconstitute a Judaism where dialogue, openness to the radical immanence of the other—whether that other is man or God—would be the central praxis. In Buber’s understanding of Judaism, those men and those movements which lived the life of encounter with the living presence of God are the authentic bearers of the Jewish spirit. Early Hasidism, for example, illustrates for him the power of the dialogic life. The hasidim lived in deep, personal encounter with God such that they developed new forms of community which, in turn, transformed their human encounters with one another. True encounter with God and true encounter with one’s human neighbor are necessarily linked.

In Buber’s reading of Jewish history, Jesus and his community of disciples constitute another authentic moment in the “subterranean” history of the dialogic, Jewish spirit. Buber felt so close to Jesus’ Judaism that he referred to him as “my great brother.” He argued that Jews can understand Jesus better than Christians and that Christians ought to listen to Jews if they want to come closer to Jesus. Yet unlike other Jews who have reclaimed Jesus for the Jewish history of faith, Buber did not simply assert that Christians got it wrong when they found in Jesus a Lord and Savior. Although Buber firmly rejected any such belief for Jews, he refused to judge Christians for it. That is, he refused to believe that there was any neutral rational criterion by which he could decide that Christians had somehow erred in their relationship with Jesus.

Buber believed that, this side of the messianic age, Christians and Jews must necessarily misunderstand each other. The other’s heart of faith can only be known within the other’s community. The Church can only see Israel as blind to the evident truth of Christ; Israel can only see the Church as presumptuous and premature in its assertion that redemption has begun. What Buber hoped, and what apparently served as the religious basis of his own dialogic encounters with Christians, was that Jew and Christian could recognize the fact of one another’s faith. Or, more precisely, that they could recognize the other’s being as rooted in unique faith and that, furthermore, this faith was faith in the same, unique One. Buber believed that Jews and Christians could acknowledge that each lives in a different room of the same mansion. Before the coming—or the return—of the messiah, the wall between the rooms is permanent. But the house is a common house. It is the One God’s house.

Buber thus validates Christian faith. Although he refuses to judge that faith by extrinsic, secular criteria, he nonetheless makes some judgments on the basis of internal, Jewish criteria. Those criteria are, of course, what he takes to be the constitutive marks of the faith of Jesus. No less than Leo Baeck, Buber has a devastating critique of Paul. He sees Paul as having introduced Greek elements foreign to the Jewish faith of Jesus. Jesus exemplifies emunah: total trust and reliance on God. Paul’s version of faith is pistis: a more intellectual belief in the truth of something. For Buber, Paul interrupts the Jewish history of faith as dialogic encounter with the living God. Paul turns Jesus into a mediator to heal the breach in this now-weakened biblical faith. Instead of Jesus’ own simple and immediate sense of trust in God, Paul innovates Christian faith as belief in Jesus. The intimacy between man and God is lost; the human ability to seek that intimacy is deprecated as “works”; and the willingness of God to enter into the dialogic encounter of intimacy is restricted to those who believe in Christ.

Buber rejects Paul from a standpoint within the history of Jewish faith, and consequently judges negatively those phases of historical Christianity in which Pauline ideas predominate. Although he believed, as we saw, that Jews and Christians are ultimately mysterious to one another, he apparently thought that his Jewish faith provided enough of a common border with Christianity so that some radical insights and judgments were possible. Buber devoted his life to the renewal of Judaism and hoped, as well, for a renewal of Christianity. He wanted Christianity to transcend some of its Pauline features and find a new voice with which to address the nations. In his view, both faith communities are absorbed in internal struggles for renewal. These struggles are of the greatest consequence for the redemption of the world. As social critic, Buber was deeply critical of the alienated life of modern man and believed that biblical faith, in both its Jewish and Christian forms, had promise for social renewal. Unlike Rosenzweig, Buber did not believe that history belonged to Christianity. Rather, he saw Jews and Christians—and others—as its shapers and victims. The ongoing utility of Christianity lay in the spiritual possibility, the life of dialogue, that it provided its adherents.

In Rosenzweig and Buber then, Christianity is grounded in an authentic reality of faith. Secular modernity provides no standard by which Christianity should be judged. Jews and Christians, although antagonists, have distinct roles in the divine plan. Their separate existences are destined to endure. Despite antagonism and estrangement, conversation is possible.

The conversation, it would seem, is le-shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven.

The modern Jewish theological encounter with Christianity thus reflects different underlying judgments about the character of modernity itself. Judgment as to whether rational, secular criteria of coherence or intelligibility are sufficient or are irrelevant; and as to whether contemporary history is secular or religious in essence. Judgments on these matters shape one’s thoughts about Western Judaism’s great religious Other.

Is this mirror of modern Jewish thought a dark glass for Christians in which their own image is only obscurely reflected? I suspect that it is. The internal concerns for renewal, the struggle for vital intellectual, if not physical, survival that pervade Jewish thought might be opaque to Christians. At any rate, these Jewish images of the other, created by liberal scholars who are themselves invariably products of modernity, at least show how little modernity serves to unify. That fundamental differences should be so intensively cultivated by even the most modern points to the limits of the modern. Authentic encounter between Christian and Jew, not less than authentic Jewish reflection on the Christian other, finds its basis in that which transcends the modern. It is neither the mutual unknowing nor the mutual estrangement from tradition that permits conversation, but groundedness in separate pasts and paths, differences that resists the stipulation of a higher identity. Not relativism, but a permanent pluralism of the ultimate, is the condition of Jewish-Christian encounter in our time. 

Alan L. Mittleman  teaches in the Department of Religion at Muhlenberg College. A rabbi, he is the author of Between Kant and Kabbalah: An Introduction to Isaac Breuer’s Philosophy of Judaism.

Photo by Thomas Vogel on Unsplash. Image cropped.