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Judaism: Between Yesterday and Tomorrow
by hans küng, translated by john bowden
crossroad, 753 pages, $39.50

Readers of Catholic maverick Hans Küng’s works have come to expect of him encyclopedic volumes displaying both prodigious scholarship and sharp polemic. And in these respects, the current volume does not disappoint. Weighing in at 633 pages of often infelicitously translated Germanic-Anglo text and another 120 pages of notes and apparatus, the book will prove laborious for any but lovers of either Judaism or Küng. And since, as the perceptive reader will soon discover, Küng evidently loves Judaism very little, only adulators of Küng need proceed. 

The present work is the first part of a trilogy devoted to increasing understanding among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The frontispiece buoyantly declares: “No peace among the nations without peace among the religions. No peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions.” What follows is history of religions as prophetic ministry/politics. Küng hopes to found the millennium on interfaith dialogue, grounded in both historical and theological research. The path to the end of history runs through a mutual understanding of our separate histories, an elucidation of our current theological alternatives, and a transformation of ourselves and our communities in”Küng’s sovereign criterion of religious authenticity”service to “the human.” The book therefore has two intended audiences: Jews and non-Jews. The latter are to be informed of Judaism’s 3,000-year-old development and present condition. The former are to be challenged to reform that tradition along Küngian theological lines. The project therefore comprises both descriptive and normative dimensions. As will soon be apparent, the two cannot be disentangled. 

As a work of description, Judaism displays an impressive scope and thoroughness. Küng has digested a vast amount of current scholarship on the major aspects of Jewish intellectual, social, economic, and political history from biblical times to the Gulf War. Regardless of what one thinks of his results, the effort as such is remarkable. Moreover, Küng’s sensitivity to the scholarly issues in both the history of the Jews and of Judaism results in a nuanced exposition. Despite occasional embarrassing errors of fact (Yael Dayan is not Moshe Dayan’s son, Abba Eban was never prime minister of the State of Israel, etc.), the specialist would find Küng’s treatment of many periods of Jewish history, if not necessarily persuasive, at least plausible.

Küng has organized his account of Jewish history around the model, popularized by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, of the paradigm. In his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Kuhn sought to show that scientific progress has not been a unilinear, cumulative discovery of truth, but rather a series of sharp, disjunctive phases in which what is discovered and interpreted depends on the epistemological/theoretical framework. Kuhn replaced, as it were, a positivistic model of science with a hermeneutic one.

As Küng employs this perspective, Judaism becomes a disjunctive series of six paradigms. Historical crises, for example the Philistine threat, bring an end to the first paradigm (tribal, decentralized Israel) and occasion another: the Israelite kingdom. Subsequent crises result in new paradigm shifts: post-exilic theocracy, classical-medieval rabbinism, modern assimilation, and postmodern statehood. What the paradigms organize are three essential constitutive elements: God, the Jewish people linked to him in covenant, and the Land. In each paradigm the set of relations among these elements changes. Different institutional, cultural, and theological constructions of these interrelated elements characterize each paradigm.

While this sounds like (and may well be) a useful and defensible methodological tool, Küng employs it for a harshly polemical purpose: the complete relativization of Jewish law. Jewish law, halakhah , becomes merely one transient, paradigm-dependent expression of the essential, enduring covenant. Rabbinic Judaism is an irredeemable survival from the Middle Ages, a term Küng cannot employ without using adjectives like “fanatical.” Orthodox Judaism, then, is deprived of both a present and a future role in the life of the Jewish people”indeed, any Jewish fidelity to Jewish law at any level of observance is anathema to Küng. 

This extremely deep-seated polemic against “the Law” sets the tone for Küng’s entire diagnosis of Judaism. Küng is more Pauline than Paul, more Lutheran than Luther. He attacks Jewish law not only in the name of a paradigmatic history of religion, but in the name of Jesus Christ. An entire chapter is given to Küng preaching to the Jews to listen to the presumed critique of the “rabbi from Nazareth” against the false piety of “the Law.” It might be argued, as Küng in fact does, that this level of dialogue-as-confrontation emerges from and makes possible real interfaith maturity. But this argument is, in Küng’s case, not convincing. On the contrary, his profound hostility to the dominant mode of Jewish piety impairs his ability not only to interpret Judaism but to converse with Jews. I have no duty to listen to someone who evidently holds my way of life in contempt. 

Küng’s hostility to classical Judaism is driven by his romantic theology, which refuses to grant any religious institutional structure authority over the human spirit. But it is also shaped by his historicism. For Küng, acknowledgment and consciousness of historicity are the hallmarks of the modern ( mutatis mutandis, postmodern) mind. The medieval, “fundamentalist” mind”he makes no distinction between medievals and modern fundamentalists”did not grasp this signal truth. This exclusive stress on an historical framework, which Küng presents as the cutting edge of his epistemological gospel, happens, however, to be thoroughly dated. Had he employed anthropological or phenomenological categories of analysis, categories no less “scientific” than his own, he might have been able to appreciate the enduring role that Jewish law plays in the life of the Jewish people. An anthropologist such as Mary Douglas, for instance, would find in Küng’s taboo-less, humanistic Judaism a program for religious suicide. And she would be right.

Küng’s own historicism finds its limit in a metahistorical truth: religion is meant to empower and serve the human. All traditions need to set aside their oppressive structures (patriarchy is one of Küng’s Jewish favorites) and elevate the humanum . Hence the sense of his opening credo: we investigate the foundations of the religions in order to discern those essential structures that may “serve the human” while yet disposing of those dysfunctional traditions that oppress and disempower. Our criterion for making such judgments transcends the horizons of our particular faith-histories, although it does seem that Jesus’ service of human beings best expresses it. 

 If Küng’s critique were limited to classical Judaism, one might dismiss it as relevant only to thin-skinned theologians. But since the work is intended to be nothing less than a contribution to world peace, much of it is, perforce, dedicated to a political analysis of the Middle East. And predictably in that troubled part of the world, Küng finds the root of all evil in the State of Israel. He devotes one hundred pages to a sweeping indictment of everything connected with it, from early Zionism to the policies of the Shamir government (which was still in power when the book was completed). Given the radical nature of his self-proclaimed “prophetic” critique, it is doubtful that the recent replacement of the Likud government by a Labor-led coalition would in any way have muted his criticism.

Küng relies on revisionist Israeli scholarship, primarily the work of Simcha Flapan, secondarily that of Benny Morris, to portray Ben Gurion and other Israeli founders as cynical, Arab-hating Realpolitiker. Such scholarship, emanating from Israel’s intellectual left during the long period of Likud dominance, seeks to deflate the heroic myths surrounding the founding of the state by deeply implicating the founding generation in the Palestinian refugee problem. Israel is tarred at birth, to use Shabtai Tevet’s phrase, with original sin. The work of these disaffected intellectuals is highly controversial and has given rise to significant public debate both in Israel and abroad; one should perhaps not foreclose on this debate out of hand. But Küng’s problem is that he uses such revisionist historiography uncritically, as if its case were self-evident. In fact, Flapan, a Marxist, is so extreme that even Morris does not accept his work. Küng treats Flapan’s reading of the roots of the Palestinian problem as uncontroverted fact. 

Selective (more precisely: tendentious) scholarship is used to argue that Israel can redeem itself from original sin only by ceding the territories to an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. With a keener feel for “prophetic values” than for the hardball reality of peace negotiations, Küng does at least succeed in reminding us why the prophets made such poor politicians. 

This is a disturbing book. It is unfortunate that so much erudition should falter on such strong prejudice. As the much-maligned rabbis put it (in loose translation): “His virtue expires in his defects.” 

Alan L. Mittleman, a frequent contributor to First Things, teaches in the Department of Religion at Muhlenberg College.