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Sun, 01 Jun 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Yehudah Mirsky’s biography of Rabbi (or “Rav”) Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Jewish Palestine, is much more than merely an account of a long-gone historic personality. During the tumultuous years between his birth in 1865 and death in 1935, Rav Kook developed a theology, taken up throughout with political issues, that has remained central to debates in Israel, a country where politics always seems to return somehow to theology.
A Rabbi Remembers Pope Benedicthttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/02/rabbi-remembers-pope-benedict
Tue, 12 Feb 2013 13:21:09 -0500
]]>The Jewish Missionhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/11/the-jewish-mission
Thu, 01 Nov 2012 00:00:00 -0400 Although most Christian churches advocate some sort of mission to non-Christians, no Jewish group advocates a mission to non-Jews. Proselytization seems to be foreign to Judaism. Are covenant and mission essentially correlative tasks for Christianity but antithetical tasks for Judaism? Not at all”though Judaism sees these tasks in her own way.
Both Jews and Christians take for themselves the words of Isaiah: I am the Lord who has rightly called you. I take hold of your hand and have formed you. And I have made you to be a covenanted people, to be a light of the nations . . . . I have given you to be a light of nations, that my salvation be unto the ends of the earth. Being a covenanted people and being a light of the nations seem to be imperatives. The first means the Jews are to be actively related to God, the second that they have a mission to enlighten Gentiles by teaching them the Torah and even to try to bring as many Gentiles as possible into the covenanted community of Israel. Thus Maimonides taught that it is a positive commandment of the Torah to proclaim the true religion to the world.
We Jews who willingly and happily confirm our covenantal status and its attendant rights and duties must take the question of mission seriously: either to accept it or reject it knowingly and with conviction. We cannot regard it as irrelevant to our covenantal identity. Mission cannot be an issue at all for Jews who do not confirm Gods covenant with Israel”Jews who usually call themselves secular Jews or cultural Jews. After all, mission comes from the Latin
, being sent, and pursuing a mission without a sender is like serving as an ambassador from nowhere.
Secularized Jews who object to Jews being proselytized can do so only on political grounds (It is undemocratic to push religion in public) or cultural grounds (We dont want to be told to adopt someone elses communal identity). Having no basis for understanding how mission could matter to themselves, they cannot understand how it could matter to anyone else. They have little to say to those for whom it does matter.
A religious commitment coupled with theological awareness gives Jews a much better way to answer the claims made upon us by missionaries representing other religions than do the rather weak political and cultural arguments of the secularists. Those having a true home in the world have the best reasons for intelligently resisting any effort to get them to move elsewhere.
I do not, by the way, regard attempts to proselytize Jews as illegitimate either for Christians or for those committed to democratic discourse. Proselytizing is only wrong if coercive or deceptive. Coercion, whether violent or not, is immoral, just as deception is immoral. If coercion is like rape, deception is like seduction. In both cases, the victim is violated. No attempt to win over converts to ones religious conviction, as long as it is not coercive or deceptive, is immoral in a democratic society, however. Indeed, religious proselytizing is no more immoral than attempting to win over people to ones political convictions. And just as political convictions are the business of political groups (usually called parties), so are religious convictions the business of religious groups (usually called communities or communions or confessions). Both political parties and religious communities are legitimate associations in any truly democratic society.
Are covenant and mission essentially correlative tasks for Judaism as they are for Christianity? To answer this question, Jews need to ask four questions. First, what has been and what should be the Jewish reaction to Christian attempts to proselytize Jews? Second, does Jewish exclusion of Gentiles from
covenanted community in this world mean that they cannot ever become members of the community, so that proselytizing them should be prohibited? Third, may Gentiles become members of the community through conversion, so that proselytization of them should be permitted? Fourth, ought they to become members of the covenanted community through conversion, so that proselytization of them should be mandated?
what has been and what should be the Jewish reaction to Christian attempts to proselytize Jews?
Jewish reaction to Christian proselytization of Jews should not be made on general moral grounds but only on specifically Jewish theological grounds. (Theology primarily means Gods word as revelation as transmitted to, by, and through the covenanted community, and only secondarily human philosophical speculation about God, what we now generally call God-talk.) Jewish theology binds only Jews, however, and so a Jewish theological response is not a moral argument made
Christians as human beings, especially to Christians as citizens of a democracy.
Jews have, do, and should resist the efforts of any other religious community to proselytize us as Jews. That is because monotheists (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) not only worship the unique God alone but are committed to a unique relationship with that unique God. That is what is usually called religion: the service of God by a distinct community. (A private religion is as absurd as a private language; religion, like language, is necessarily social.) Adopting another religion, even if that other religion worships the same God, means rejecting the religion in which one is already a permanent participant. That is apostasy, which comes from the Greek word meaning to stand apart, something Jewish law, Christian law, and Islamic law all strictly prohibit. Indeed, each system of law assigns grave consequences both in this world and in the world beyond for their apostates.
It is not a theological argument made
Christianity. In fact, this theological reaction contains a political argument made
Christians only when it reminds them of how a specific mission
Jews makes dialogue
Jews impossible, which is not the case when Christians simply proclaim the gospel to the whole world in general. But it is for Christians, not Jews, to decide whether the abandonment of a specific mission
Jews for the sake of dialogue
Jews can be a genuinely Christian public policy or not. In other words, like Jews, Christians have to ponder whether or not Christian“Jewish dialogue is theologically justified. In fact, the Catholic Church, which since the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s has abandoned any specific mission to the Jews, is still struggling with this issue.
Short of anti-Semitic proposals for the persecution or even the murder of Jews, nothing is more offensive to Jews than concerted programs targeting Jews to convert to another religion. (Let me emphasize that since at least the third century, Judaism and Christianity have been different religions. Christianity is no more fulfilled Judaism than Judaism is proto-Christianity.) To convert is to commit religious and political suicide. Even when such programs simultaneously denounce the injustice of anti-Semitism, even when they express genuine friendship and love for the Jewish people, even when they genuinely support the State of Israel, they denigrate Judaism as a religion, by declaring it insufficient for the salvation of the Jews who live it, if not a false religion altogether.
As for proselytizing in general, the fact that the Catholic Church eagerly accepts converts whatever their origins happen to be should be no more offensive to Jews than the fact that Jews accept converts to Judaism whatever their origins (religious or ethnic) happen to be.
does Jewish exclusion of Gentiles from the covenanted community in this world mean that Gentiles cannot become members of that community, so that proselytization of them should be prohibited?
Even though Judaism does not necessarily entail active proselytization of possible converts, proselytization itself necessarily presupposes the institution of conversion, and conversion is a permanent and inextricable feature of Judaism. The Rabbis established the procedures for conversion to Judaism in the second century c.e. No one within the normative Jewish community (those who completely accept the authority of revelation-based Jewish law) can reject the institution of conversion (called
in Hebrew) per se. In fact, conversion has been considered not only a Jewish necessity but also a Jewish desideratum.
The Rabbis could have easily eliminated conversion by legal means after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e., as ancient tradition stipulated that to complete the process of conversion the convert had to bring a sacrifice to the Jerusalem Temple. Nevertheless, they ruled that this was not an impediment when circumstances prevented anyone from bringing a sacrifice. Furthermore, ancient tradition stipulated that those supervising a conversion had to have the type of rabbinical ordination going back to Moses (something quite like apostolic succession in Christianity) that would qualify them to be constituted members of the Sanhedrin. Even with the demise of the Sanhedrin less than one hundred years after the destruction of the Temple, this too could have been made a necessary condition of conversion, but later authorities ruled that any three adult responsible Jewish males could supervise the proceedings. This approach to conversion was especially emphasized by those Jewish theologians, like Maimonides, who gave greater priority to voluntary conviction
Judaism than to involuntary birth
the Jewish people.
may Gentiles become members of the community through conversion, so that proselytization of them should be permitted?
The permissibility of accepting converts, perhaps even the desirability of doing so, has much support in the Jewish tradition, yet even the most enthusiastic proponents of welcoming converts cannot argue that there is any true obligation to do so actively. That leads one to answer the fourth question,
Ought Gentiles to become members of the community through conversion, so that proselytization of them is mandated?
, with a no. Jews have an obligation only to accept those Gentiles who have voluntarily come and have demonstrated their commitment to live according to the commandments of the Torah as best they can.
Some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Reform Jews spoke of the mission of Israel. However, their mission was not an attempt to convert Gentiles but advocacy of the universal, enlightened values they claimed Jewish genius had first proclaimed and the Jews had best preserved. Today, we still see secularized remnants of this mission in attempts to proclaim a secular Judaism as the paradigm for others attempting to overcome the supposedly narrow restraints of their own traditions.
By contrast, traditional Jews like me who have attempted to bring the wisdom of the Jewish tradition into current discussions of universal moral questions have carefully avoided seeing ourselves as missionaries to the Gentiles. Indeed, we have not done so for the sake of any ideal whose human achievement lies on the immanent historical horizon. Instead, we have tried only to remind our fellow citizens, especially our Christian fellow citizens, of the universal morality that lies
both Judaism and Christianity, that we inherited rather than invented. This universal morality is a minimal precondition, not a maximal ideal. To secularists we have argued”often in league with Christian ethicists”that the morality we espouse is evident to any rational, morally earnest human person.
We have more deeply argued that there is a Judeo-Christian morality based on the doctrine known
the rise of either Judaism or Christianity, that every human person is the imago Dei, which to me means that every human person is to be regarded as the object of Gods everlasting concern. Thus the imitatio Dei is the task of every human subject: continually to emulate that divine concern in all ones interpersonal relations with every other human being. One of the ancient sages saw the words This is the book of the human generations, on the day of Gods creation of the human person; in the likeness of God He made him to be the reason we are commanded to love your neighbor as yourself.
Having answered the four questions this way, we must ask a final question: Is Jewish proselytization of Gentiles something to be encouraged (but not strictly mandated) or discouraged (but not strictly prohibited)? I ask this question as a rabbi who has officiated at the conversion of many Gentiles who have greatly enriched the Jewish community, spiritually, intellectually, and politically. But I think proselytization of Gentiles, as distinct from welcoming conversion, should be discouraged for two reasons.
First, most Jews have bad (even painful) memories of having been proselytized by Gentiles, especially Christians. As Hillel the Elder taught, What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else is the most basic Jewish norm. Were we to advocate an active Jewish mission to the Gentiles, most Jews would either laugh or shudder.
Second, proselytization inevitably involves some sort of triumphalism. If it does not tell its Gentile objects that their religion is absolutely evil, it tells them it is inadequate. Yet that is decidedly unbiblical. Those not born into the covenanted community cannot be held responsible for not worshiping the covenanting God. The Prophets of Israel never condemned the idolatry of the Gentiles per se; they only condemned Gentile immorality. In fact, they condemned Gentile idolatry only when Jews were attracted to it to the point of practicing it.
This comes out when one correctly interprets the two verses from Isaiah I quoted at the beginning. Many have spoken of Israel being a light
the nations. But the verse actually reads: I have made you a covenanted people, to be a light
nations. What is the difference? The Gentiles are to be impressed with what God has done
his people; Gods people are not to go out and actively enlighten them. In one rabbinic interpretation, Jethro, who could be considered the first convert, becomes one with the people of Israel when he hears that God revealed the foundation of the Torah, the Decalogue, to the whole people at Mount Sinai.
Even in the end of days, when Gentiles en masse will say, Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he might instruct us in his ways, that we might walk in his paths, the initiative will come from them, not from us. In fact, the medieval Jewish Bible commentator Rabbi David Kimhi interpreted this verse to mean that these Gentile peoples will ask for instruction in what are called the seven commandments to the children of Noah (who are all of humankind after the Flood), which all human communities are expected to uphold and all human persons are expected to live up to. The Gentiles are only asking the Jews to teach them what is prior to Judaism and to any other historical religion, which the Jews seem to have preserved for themselves and all humankind accurately. The Gentiles here are not asking to become Jews. And the Jews are not asking the Gentiles to help us fast-forward the kingdom of God on earth by becoming full or even partial proselytes.
The discouragement of proselytization should not lead one to think that one religion is as good as the other, so everyone should simply stay in the religion of his own culture, or that since one religion is as false as the other, everyone should drop the religion of his own culture. Such relativism, whether tolerant or intolerant, makes ones Judaism (or ones Christianity) something of less than ultimate concern, something that could hardly require one to die a martyr if that be the only alternative to apostasy. And martyrdom is something that Judaism requires of all Jews and that Christianity requires of all Christians.
That is something faithful Jews and faithful Christians should never forget. Like Christians, we Jews cannot condone, let alone bless, the apostasy of those who have left our covenanted community. Like Christians, we can only welcome with a blessing those who have joined our community. We bless you who have come in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the House of the Lord, as the Psalmist says. May the Lord reward your effort, and may your recompense be complete from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to be sheltered, as Boaz tells Ruth. Welcoming converts enables us to proclaim the righteousness of God, who has inspired them to come into Gods house”or at least our Jewish wing of Gods house. Proselytization, though, could too easily lead us to the false proclamation of our own righteousness rather than our bearing witness to whoever wants to see the righteousness of God at work in the life of our covenanted community.
But the full and complete working of Gods righteousness
us and ultimately
the whole world will come only with the coming of the Messiah. May he come soon!
David Novak, a member of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, is professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. This article is a revised version of a lecture given at the University of Dallas.
Follow the conversation on this article in the Letters section of our January 2013 issue.
]]>Because of What God Has Donehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/12/because-of-what-god-has-done
Thu, 01 Dec 2011 00:00:00 -0500 My host told me, a rabbi with a yarmulke on my head, to address the pope in Yiddish. This I did, and I could tell from the expression on his face and from the way he grasped my hand that John Paul II’s heart had been touched. I mentioned to him that Jewish tradition required me to utter a benediction (a
) in Hebrew, thanking God for having “given some of his glory to flesh and blood,” which is to be said upon seeing (let alone conversing with) a king. To this benediction, the pope answered, “Amen.”
]]>The Man-Made Messiahhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/01/the-man-made-messiah
Sat, 01 Jan 2011 00:00:00 -0500 The most recognized face of any Jewish leader of the past fifty years belongs to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, even more so today than at his death in 1994. There are few Jews who have not seen the picture of the Lubavitcher rebbe on billboards or in other media or who have not encountered one of his many representatives, young men and women who have dedicated their lives to the dissemination of his teachings. At the core of those teachings is a messianic theology that is emphasized in varying degrees by his Chabad emissaries, even more so posthumously than during his lifetime.
is the generic name of the Hasidic community he led for forty-four years;
is the name of the town in Belarus where the Chabad community was centered before the First World War.
This messianism doubtless fires Chabads missionary fervor. It distinguishes Chabad from more insular Hasidic communities and motivates Chabad to employ the same techniques of modern publicity as do Christian and Islamic missionary movements. The thrust of this messianic theology is the strong suggestion that Rabbi Schneerson himself is the Messiah-King, thus making the essential task of his representatives (called
in Hebrew) to prepare the Jewish people, and along with them all humankind, to affirm that kingship.
The Lubavitcher rebbe”the name used by those who do not consider him to be
Rebbe”is the subject of two important new books: the more biographical
The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson
by Professors Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, and the more theoretical
Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menachem Mendel Schneerson
by Professor Elliot Wolfson. But before turning to the controversy these volumes have occasioned, we need to understand
a Hasidic rebbe does, to make clear what kind of Hasidic rebbe was Menachem Mendel Schneerson. We must also understand the meaning of the messianic claims made by him or by his followers and consider the future of a community now living his afterlife.
Traditional Jewish communities are led by a rabbi of recognized authority (a
in Hebrew). A traditional rabbi is the man to whom the community and its members turn to rule on what Jewish law requires of them, particularly in cases of doubt. The rabbi is often the regular preacher in the synagogue, the man whose sermons offer his community more general theological and moral guidance. But a Hasidic rebbe is much more than a rabbinical jurist and preacher, although some of them also have functioned in these roles. Heilman and Friedman accurately describe a rebbe as an intermediary between his followers and the Almighty, capable of bestowing blessings as well as transmitting the will of God. As such, this is the man (although there once was a woman who functioned as a rebbe) who makes those policies of a Hasidic community that seem to need more than ordinary legal or theological justifications or who can get a new commandment ad hoc directly from God. That is why individual Hasidim come to their rebbe for divine direction in life dilemmas with no simple legal or theological solution. In fact, in most Hasidic communities, quotidian legal and theological tasks are usually assigned to a rebbes rabbinical subordinates.
To compare with Catholicism, one could say an ordinary rabbi functions like a canon lawyer or an official theologian, whereas a rebbe bears a charismatic spiritual authority more comparable to that of a pope. Yet just as a pope claims only to be Christs vicar, not Christ himself, so does a Hasidic rebbe not normally claim to be the Messiah. That is what made Menachem Mendel Schneerson a very different kind of rebbe. And Rabbi Schneersons own not so subtle suggestions that he himself might be the Messiah mean that his more messianic followers are not simply inventing his messiahhood out of their own collective imagination. Indeed, as Wolfsons study shows, this messianic preoccupation has been a central feature of Chabad theology from its beginnings in the works of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of Chabad Hasidism. This type of messianism also prompted Professor David Berger of Yeshiva University to write his controversial 2001 book
The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference
, in which he argues that the similarities of Chabad messianic theology to Christology make it heretical, if not outright apostasy from Judaism.
As Heilman and Friedman tell the story, the future Rebbe was born Menachem Mendel in 1902 to distant relatives of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Shalom Ber Schneerson. In the dynastic succession typical of Hasidic rebbes, Shalom Ber Schneerson was succeeded on his death by his son, Yosef Yitzchak, born in 1880. In 1928 Menachem Mendel became Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersons son-in-law and took on his last name. Between 1928 and 1941 (the year he arrived in the United States), Menachem Mendel Schneerson and his wife lived first in Berlin and then in Paris, where he studied and tried to practice engineering though remaining dependent on his father-in-law for financial support. Although they kept close ties to the Lubavitch community, it seems the young Schneerson couple planned a more independent life for themselves. (Even after Menachem Schneerson became the Lubavitcher rebbe in 1950, his wife, Moussia, continued to live her own rather private life and insisted on being called Mrs. Schneerson rather than the Lubavitcher
or rebbes wife.) The fall of France to the Nazis forced the Schneersons to follow Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak to the United States, where the Lubavitcher community had established its headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
In New York, Rabbi Schneerson became more involved in the leadership of the Lubavitch community, especially as his father-in-law became more infirm. On Yosef Yitzchaks death in 1950, the patrilineal succession common in the Hasidic world was excluded, as the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe had only daughters. The big question among Lubavitchers”and among other interested parties in the Hasidic world and the world of the ultraorthodox yeshivas”was Who will Yosef Yitzchaks successor be? His oldest daughter, Chana, was married to Rabbi Abraham Gourary, who acted as the rebbes executive secretary. But, as Heilman and Friedman put it, Gourary . . . appeared to many people to lack personal charisma”unlike Menachem Mendel Schneerson. After a brief struggle for succession, the Lubavitcher Hasidim chose Menachem Mendel Schneerson to be their seventh rebbe, and Rabbi Gourary and most of his supporters fell into line.
Before the seventh rebbes succession in 1950, Lubavitch did not stand out from its larger and more influential rivals, such as Satmar, Ger, and Belz. The power and vision of Menachem Mendel Schneersons leadership quickly changed that. On several key theological and political issues, he reversed the usual Hasidic turn inward into a new kind of outreach. He sought not only to bring Chabad Hasidism into a radically new world but, even more, to bring that new world to Chabad. Some saw this as Lubavitchs adjustment to the new world, but Lubavitchers themselves see this as Chabads turning that new world toward its own truth.
The issues on which Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson made a big difference”at least in the larger Orthodox world”concern nonreligious Jews, non-Jews, and the state of Israel. All of this is explained well in the Heilman“Friedman biography, and some of it in Wolfsons study of Rabbi Schneersons theology.
To the leaders of East European Orthodox Jewish communities before the Second World War, America was a
”a nonkosher domain”a place where Jews were pulled into a vortex of vulgar materialism and a culture that quickly and thoroughly melted down traditional Jewish devotion to the Torah and the practice of its commandments. This attitude was especially prevalent among the Hasidic rebbes, who advocated the most thorough Jewish separation possible. In their eyes, the dangers to Jewish bodies posed by East European societies were to be preferred to the danger to Jewish souls posed by American society and (in the rebbes eyes) its atheistic culture. That is why few Hasidim, and even fewer Lubavitcher Hasidim, settled in America until after the Second World War. And that is certainly how Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson felt about America, even after he took refuge there in 1940, following his release from a Soviet prison. On his succession, Menachem Mendel Schneerson proposed a radically different view of America and the role it could play in Jewish revival.
Most Hasidic rebbes kept their followers away from the great majority of secularized or vaguely religious American Jews. By the end of his life, the man whom Lubavitcher Hasidim now call the previous rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, was beginning to send out some of his disciples to try to bring more Judaism to these lost Jews. In the past, the only type of outreach to other Jews practiced by Lubavitch or any other Hasidic community was to attract the followers of other Hasidic rebbes or other Orthodox Jews (usually from the anti-Hasidic yeshiva world) to become the Hasidim of their rebbe. When, in 1949, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson sent some of his disciples to encourage more Jewish religious observance at the decidedly secular Brandeis University, he signaled a departure from Hasidic and even Lubavitch precedents. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson saw the Jews of America as unlike the European Jews who knew the traditional Judaism they had willingly deserted. He characterized American Jews as the kidnapped child of whom the Talmud speaks: a person who did not desert Judaism but whom the traditional Jewish community had never known at all. Returning these people to the Jewish fold did not entail winning them back to a tradition they had rejected. Instead, they were to be introduced to Jewish identity for the first time.
When Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the Lubavitcher rebbe, he expanded this outreach. He intoned in his writings and speeches that this outreach was necessary to bring about the arrival of the Messiah. Chabad outreach did not recognize Jewish secularism or what Rabbi Schneerson considered to be the compromised Judaism of Reform and Conservative Jews. Chabad looked at these Jews only as lost individuals. For Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, anything less than Jewish Orthodoxy (meaning full acceptance of the divinely revealed Torah and the authority of Jewish legal tradition, Halakhah) was not Judaism at all; indeed, even non-Hasidic Orthodox Jews”and even non-Lubavitch Hasidim”could find the truest and fullest form of Judaism only in Chabad. As Heilman and Friedman report, Rabbi Schneersons emissaries would act as agents provocateurs, people who
open to modernity and America, but only in order to change it.
But Rabbi Schneersons departure from traditional suspicion of America went deeper. He understood that America had not only a different kind of Jew but also a different kind of Gentile. Despite a residual anti-Semitism, Americans on the whole not only are friendlier to Jews but also have a greater respect for Judaism. Unlike many Orthodox Jews today, who view with suspicion American Christian support for Israel and other Jewish causes, the Lubavitcher rebbe saw the underlying affinity: American Christianity is steeped in the Bible. And America itself, if not in an official political sense, is still very much a Christian country culturally. American Christianity, moreover, retains the influence of Puritan Calvinism, which, more than any other Christian current, emphasized the Old Testament.
What is the practical import of American biblicism? One can see the Bible teaching two main truths, one universal and the other particular. The universal truth is that there are certain moral norms whose affirmation can be expected of all human beings. This is what the rabbinic tradition called the Noahide commandments, Noah being the progenitor of all humankind after the Flood. The sign of a truly decent society, one that Jews can respect and even participate in, is the seriousness with which that society takes these universal norms, whatever they might be called.
The particular truth taught in the Bible is that the Jewish people are the elect of God and play a unique role in Gods ultimate redemption of the world from sin and death. A good non-Jewish society (or civilization) is one that takes the Noahide laws seriously and recognizes the ultimate importance of having Jews teaching and practicing a flourishing Judaism in its midst. Rabbi Schneerson judged America to be such a society”a society in which both the universal and particular teaching of the Bible are taken seriously.
The political effects of this type of theological speculation about America came to the fore relatively early in Rabbi Schneersons career as the Lubavitcher rebbe. In 1962, when the largely secularist leaders of American Jewry were vigorously fighting the recitation of any prayer, no matter how nonsectarian, in public schools, Rabbi Schneerson, in what became his first real appearance on the larger American Jewish stage, argued the opposite. After all, if there is a Noahide commandment that prohibits idolatry (the worship of other gods), doesnt that imply that the worship of the One God”whom all the proposed public-school prayers explicitly invoked”is required of all human beings, especially if the One God is the creator of heaven and earth represented in the Bible?
Also in the 1960s, when the leaders of American Jewry were vigorously fighting religious displays such as Christmas crèches in what Father Richard John Neuhaus called the naked public square, Rabbi Schneerson directed his representatives to erect Hanukkah menorahs in public places wherever they could do so. To my knowledge, the only opposition to this project the Lubavitchers have encountered has been from secularist Jews who seem to be uncomfortable with anyones religion, even their own or that of their ancestors, occupying a public space. Moreover, the choice of this particular Jewish object for public display is significant because the Hanukkah menorah is meant to proclaim to the world that God miraculously saved the Jewish people from losing their religious identity to a foreign power and its culture in the days of the Maccabees. The story appeals to the deepest levels of American identity”an archetypal identity forged by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, who risked everything to worship God publicly in their own way. Despite their quaint dress, young Lubavitchers erecting Hanukkah menorahs in the public square recall the Pilgrim Fathers, as several American Christians have told me. Indeed, they seem more American than the Jewish and Gentile secularists who want to put religion into the closet.
Nevertheless, as Wolfson reports, Rabbi Schneerson was no universalist, although he held a higher view of Gentiles, especially American Christians, than did most other Hasidic thinkers past and present. He propounded the Hasidic view, drawn from Kabbalah, that an ontological divide separates Jews from Gentiles: Jews are taken to be a distinct species, with a superior relationship with God. And that is not only because Jews are the recipients of the Sinaitic revelation (which, after all, Gentiles can access in some fashion) but also because Jews, in both soul and body, were created to be more elevated than the rest of creation and humankind. Accordingly, non-Jews are valued insofar as they respect Judaism and maintain the kind of moral society in which Jewish religion can survive and flourish.
When modern political Zionism emerged around the turn of the twentieth century, most Orthodox Jews opposed it. For most early Zionists, Zionism seemed not to be an expression of Jewish religion but rather a substitute for it. Almost all the Hasidic rebbes abhorred Zionism, including the fifth and sixth Lubavitcher rebbes, Shalom Ber Schneerson and his son and successor, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. They saw Zionism as yet another snare set by heretical Jewish modernity for traditional Jews. Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson persisted in this stance until the end of his life. Chabads attitude began to change when Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the Lubavitcher rebbe in 1950, just two years after the reestablishment of the state of Israel.
Why the change in attitude”what Heilman and Friedman call reinvention? It could be said that Rabbi Schneerson saw the realization of the Zionist ideal in the state of Israels presence in the contemporary world just as he saw America as the realization of the religious ideals of its Founders. Despite the secularist dangers, the state of Israel, with its Jewish majority population, offered Chabad a field for future development. Zionism was no longer an enemy, as it was in the continuing view of Chabads archrivals, the Satmar Hasidim. On the contrary, Chabads support of Israel and, in particular, its foreign policy has been very successful in Israel, despite a theology that denies explicit support for any secular state, even a Jewish one. Rabbi Schneersons portrait is displayed throughout Israel without a caption because he is universally recognized. Chabad emissaries are everywhere, from airports to shopping centers.
While granting Rabbi Schneersons extraordinary achievements and influence on contemporary Jewish life, traditional Judaism cannot accept the view of some of his followers that Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah. The Messiah is assumed to be a particular human being who is to perform certain acts that identify him as such. Even in the less apocalyptic type of Jewish messianism, the Messiah is still expected to gather all Israel into the land of Israel, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, and establish an optimal polity having strong international influence. If not supernatural, these criteria are nonetheless utopian. And according to these criteria Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson cannot be the Messiah yet to come.
Elliot Wolfson offers a convoluted postmodern argument that Schneerson somehow still represented the Messiah impersonally or transpersonally. This detracts from the creditable scholarship Wolfson applies to analyzing the vast body of Chabad writings and putting it into the overall context of the kabbalistic theology he knows so well. Heilman and Friedman, on the other hand, mar an otherwise strong narrative by indulging in shallow psychologizing and ascribing to the Lubavitcher rebbe all sorts of motives that only he and God could possibly know he ever had.
Lastly, though, the questions raised by the two Orthodox sociologists who know a good deal of the history of Hasidism are most pertinent. What, Heilman and Friedman ask, will happen to Chabad, with its now deceased rebbe whom no one outside of Chabads own messianic circle claims to be the Messiah? They conclude, One needs to wait at least two generations to begin to see how religious change develops and whether movements die, fractionalize, or are sustained. Yet, here and now, one can hope.
As a traditional Jew I have benefited personally from the hospitality of Chabad Hasidim on many occasions, and I marvel at how many Jews Chabad has brought back to their primordial home. That is why I hope Chabad will be sustained and will flourish. I hope the explicitly messianic Chabad Hasidim eventually will return to normative Judaism, something that has happened before to what we might call premature Jewish messianic movements. And I dare hope that sooner or later Chabad will choose an eighth Lubavitcher rebbe who will be a worthy successor to Menachem Mendel Schneerson and will carry forth his legacy as Menachem Mendel carried forth the legacy of his father-in-law Yosef Yitzchak. And may the Messiah come soon in our days, to validate their great efforts to bring the Jewish people, and with them all humankind, forward to God in a way no eye but Gods has yet seen.
David Novak, a member of the First Things editorial and advisory board, is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
]]>Why Are the Jews Chosen?https://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/04/why-are-the-jews-chosen
Thu, 01 Apr 2010 00:00:00 -0400 One way anti-Jewish sentiment has been interpreted is simply as a
quid pro quo
. Gentile animosity, in this view, does to the Jews what the Jews have done, or at least would like to do, to Gentiles”because we Jews present ourselves as the
people. In the seventeenth century, Baruch Spinoza suggested that the Jews made the Gentiles hate them by claiming to be Gods people and setting themselves apart by their practice of circumcision”the bodily sign of Gods covenantal election. In 1938, immediately after the Nazi pogroms of
, George Bernard Shaw wondered why the Jews were complaining so loudly; after all, wasnt this what the chosen people did to the Canaanites in the process of conquering the promised land?
In this view of Jewish chosenness”given its clearest expression, after the Holocaust, in George Steiners 1999 novel
The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.
”envy of the Jews claim made the Nazis do two things. The first was to accuse the Jews not only of having invented their chosenness but also of having invented the God who chose them. As Steiners Hitler asks, Was there ever a crueler invention, a contrivance more calculated to harrow human existence, than that of an omnipotent, all-seeing, yet invisible, impalatable, inconceivable God? And the second was to argue that, because there can be only one chosen people, it must be either the Jews or (in this case) the Germans. One must extinguish the other from the face of the earth. There is no possible middle ground, no possible compromise.
There are Jews today who seem to hold this view, even if they do not like to ascribe it, as Steiner does, to Hitler. They have concluded that if the affirmation of chosenness by God is the cause of near extinction, Jews must root that affirmation out entirely. And for some Jews, this denial of election means denial of God”a denial that fits, unfortunately, with the atheistic agenda of some of the more radical Jewish secularists, who think they can build a thoroughly secular Judaism. The denial lives at a primal, emotional level: Since Gods choice of us Jews has led to death and destruction, we now
Him! This is the dead-god atheism of Nietzsche rather than the there-never-was-a-god atheism of Feuerbach.
I remember this myth being thrown in my face little more than ten years after the Holocaust, when, as a Jewish teenager, I was confronted in our Chicago high school by another Jewish student”Sam, who screamed at me for wanting to be chosen by
god, after most of his family in Europe was murdered in Auschwitz. Compared to Sams anger, the occasional taunts from Gentile classmates were mild. And ever since that afternoon in 1956, I have tried to think of what I should, or could, have said in response.
Along the way, I also have found that Sam is legion.
We might begin with the obvious point that biological identity is natural while national identity is constructed. Even when God chose Israel, he did not create the people of Israel as he created its human members, as natural beings. Instead, God formed the people of Israel from individual human beings already living in the natural world, calling them into a new historical identity.
These identities are necessarily related, but they are not the same. No one lives without some sort of political-cultural identity, and all political-cultural groups are made up of individual human members”but persons are not a people, and a people is not a person.
Most Jews, like most rational persons, know that their personal identity and their ethnic identity are not one and the same. Some Jews, in fact, seem to have concluded that their political-cultural survival might work against their individual biological survival. If there is a much greater chance that I and my children will be killed because we are identifiable as Jews than if we become (or pass as) Gentiles, then isnt assimilation the most reasonable means? Some evidence for this exists in the extremely low birth rate among more secularized Jews, their high intermarriage rate, and the fact that they are much more likely to convert to other religions than are religious Jews. Theyve chosen to be unchosen, and many of them have been quite successful in their practical denial of election, at least by this-worldly criteria.
To reach the idea that physical survival trumps ethnic survival, however, we have to assume that ethnic survival must be for the sake of personal survival. Jewish tradition teaches the opposite: The survival of the Jewish people takes precedence over the survival of individual Jews. A Jew is required to marry, bring children into the world, and rear them with a Jewish identity, even if this means that their chances of individual survival will be lessened. Under the most extreme conditions, the cultural-religious survival of the Jewish people altogether trumps the physical survival of any individual Jew.
Privileging ethnic survival makes sense only when one understands that the survival of the Jewish people is not self-justifying: As a genuine task for Jews, survival requires a transcendent purpose and reason for existence, and a claim that without ethnic survival, Jews will sink into individual or collective nihilism. Even though, according to Jewish theology, Jews cannot,
, cease being Jews, they can,
, hide that theological fact from human eyes. Moreover, a Jew can terminate his Jewish familial lineage by siring Gentile children with a Gentile woman. According to Jewish law, a Jewish woman can give birth to Jewish children sired by a Gentile father; the chances are great, however, that such children will not identify with the Jewish people in any tangible way, and their descendants will be even less likely to do so.
Jewish ethnic and religious survival thus depends on the active choice of Jews to advocate Judaism in authentically Jewish ways”which means Jews must actively choose to be chosen. They confirm the theological fact that God has chosen Israel for an everlasting covenant, the constitution of which is the Torah. And this requires that the Torah be taught, and its commandments kept, as much as is humanly possible.
All of this is a way of expressing what I should have told Sam all those years ago: There is a necessary connection between the choice of the Jewish people to survive and the central doctrine of Gods election of Israel in the giving of the Torah.
The centrality and ultimacy of the Torah is expressed in one of the most famous stories in the Talmud: the story of the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph. This event occurred around 135 C.E., when the imperial Roman authorities in Palestine had outlawed the rabbis public teaching of Torah. The Romans, no doubt, regarded the Jews public religious gatherings as potentially revolutionary, and in the case of Rabbi Akiva, an outspoken supporter of revolutionary leader Simeon bar Kokhba, they were right.
When Rabbi Akiva defied the ban, he set himself up for an inevitable, painful execution. When another Jew asked him why he was engaging in what seemed, to someone of little faith, to be a suicidal course of action, he answered with this parable: A fox was walking alongside a river and saw fish, who were forming groups in the stream. He asked, What are you fleeing? And they answered, From the nets humans cast over us. He said to them: Wouldnt you like to come up here to dry land so that I and you can dwell together like my ancestors dwelt with your ancestors? They said to him: Youre the one reputed to be the smartest of the animals! Youre not smart, but a fool! If in our vital habitat [
] we are afraid, in a place where we will certainly die, how much more so?
For Rabbi Akiva, the Torah is the vital public habitat of the Jews. As scripture says, It is your life [
]. Without Jewish engagement in the public teaching and learning of Torah, the Jewish people as a distinct community cannot survive. Neither can individual Jews survive as Jews in private without the public dimension of their covenantal religion.
This leaves open, of course, the question of whether the Torah exists for the sake of the survival of the Jews, or the Jews survive for the sake of the Torah. Because the Jewish people are chosen by God and commanded by him to choose life, and because this life means more than mere physical existence, a Jewish life can be lived cogently only when its purpose transcends its own contingent presence in the world. God chose us to live both in body and in soul, but the body functions for the sake of the soul more than the soul functions for the body.
The perfect Torah restores the soul, as the Psalms say, which means the soul does not restore itself without being in a strong covenantal relationship with God”a relationship constituted by the Torah and nothing else. Without the public teaching and practice of Torah, not only have the Jews lost their reason for existing but the whole world has lost its reason for existence. To emphasize creations dependence on the Torah, the Talmud cites Jeremiah 33:25: Were My covenant not by day and by night, I would not have made the very structures of heaven and earth.
Only humans can be the free subjects of commandments. And only humans can freely relate back to God”the perpetual giver of the Torah”as the active recipients of the Torah, in the context of Gods covenant. As in Gods covenant with all creation at the time of Noah, both covenanted partners are irrevocably pledged to remain faithful forever. There are no exit clauses in this asymmetrical mutual partnership in which God is the senior partner and the elected community is the junior partner.
The covenanted community should have been universal humankind, uniquely created in the image of God. But since the debacle of the Tower of Babel, there has been no universal human community”only the separate and distinct peoples in this world. Indeed, a real universal human community is only a messianic desideratum, not a human project. That is why”as it seems from the juxtaposition in Genesis of the Tower of Babel event and the life and career of Abraham”God chose Abraham and those born from him (and those who have attached themselves to his house) to be the covenanted community that God needs for the Torah to do its work in the world.
God seems to see, in a way that is hidden from human eyes, potential in the children of Abraham for the Torah to be kept in their midst until the end of days. That potential will be fully actualized in the future; it is not reward for past meritorious human achievement. Jews by themselves cannot actualize their covenantal potential.
Acceptance by Jews of our chosen status”when we do accept it”is much more an acceptance of Gods electing claim on us than a demand that the world recognize our this-worldly superiority, whether moral, political, or even religious. Whatever George Steiners fictional Hitler and others more real might think, we are a chosen people, not a master race. We were chosen to be the trustees of Gods Torah, and this is why we must survive as a people, even if it entails walking a dangerous path in this world. Just as a commandment is best fulfilled when a Jew understands
God gave each commandment the way he did, so the Jews chosenness is best lived for”and died for”when we understand the uniquely divine purpose for which God chose us.
Here and now, this prepares us to understand how we can survive the shadow of the Holocaust, surviving it without forgetting it. We must survive, even living as fully as possible in this world, because God needs Israel for the sake of his holy Torah, so that Gods presence does not vanish from the earth because there is no place for it here. We do not know
we have suffered; we know only
for what and for whom
we have survived our suffering.
Those who have truly made Gods Torah their purpose in this world will survive not only the Holocaust but also the memory of all the lesser holocausts; they will remember them without ever being done in by them. They will live again to see the time when Gods Torah will be written on their hearts (Jer. 33:31“33), and they will keep its commandments freely. They will not commit the suicide of the Jewish soul by succumbing to the despair that follows when the Holocaust becomes our central point of reference rather than something the Torah teaches that God Himself will conquer, when he will destroy death forever, and will wipe away tears from every face (Isaiah 25:8).
The Holocaust, taken by itself, is a black hole. To look at it directly is to be swallowed up by it. The Holocaust can be glanced at only sideways, from the safe haven of being Gods chosen people, here and now. Only everlasting life will finally explain death. Death can never explain life; it can only try to destroy it. I shall not die but live to declare the works of the Lord (Psalms 118:17), doing the work that God has placed before Jews to do in this world. It is work that anticipates the joyous life of the world yet to come. Yet even that anticipation never lets us forget the agony of this world, even as it helps us survive it.
David Novak, a member of the First Things editorial and advisory board, is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
]]>Conrad Black and Judaismhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2009/10/conrad-black-and-judaism
Fri, 09 Oct 2009 00:40:00 -0400 In the Tuesday, September 29 edition of the
(Toronto), long time columnist Conrad Black wrote
Why I Became a Catholic
. I was intrigued by Lord Blacks story of his spiritual journey to a more intense Christianity, yet I began to recoil when reading his dismissal of Judaism as a real spiritual option for himself (or for anyone else like him).
It is not that I want Conrad Black to have converted to Judaism. Historically, Jews only accept converts rather than actively seeking them. Instead, I want him to recognize that his now deeper commitment to Christianity should not have led lead him to dismiss Judaism in the way he has dismissed Islam or Eastern religions. Why? Because Christianity came out of Judaism, whereas Islam and the Eastern religions did not. In fact, the very first heresy declared by the Christian Church was that of Marcion (in the second century), who tried to sever Christianity from the God of Israel, the people Israel, and the Torah revealed to Israel. Thus Judaism is not only Christianitys origin but, just as much, its constant companion. In fact, it could be said that thoughtful Christians might have to ask themselves why they have not remained within Judaism, whether literally (as in the case of Jewish converts to Christianity) or figuratively (as in the case of those who accept the later Christian tradition built on the earlier Jewish one).
What Conrad Black has missed in his spiritual journey to God (
via ad Deum
) is that the God he has found in the Catholic Church is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (or Israel), whose Messiah, who he promised to the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, claimed to be. If one seeking a relationship with
God believes this claim is true, then one should become the best kind of Christian he can be (which Lord Black believes is to become a Catholic). But, if one does not believe this is true, and still wants to be fully related to the God of Israel, then he should become the best kind of Jew one can be. That is why the choice to become a Jew (or to become a better Jew) and the choice to become a Christian (or to become a better Christian) depends on ones belief about who Jesus of Nazareth is or is not. That is the difference in kind between living as a Jew and living as a Christian. These two faith commitments are mutually exclusive; it is an issue of either/or.
This difference in kind (what the French would call
la différence même
) is not that the Christian makes a positive commitment and that the Jewish commitment is simply its negation. Instead, the Jewish commitment to the Messiah-yet-to-come is positive vis- -vis the future in the same way the Jewish commitment to the Torah revealed at Sinai is positive visa-via the past. And both faith commitments are made in the present when a Jew learns Torah, practices the commandments (
), and engages in Jewish worship.
A good Jew is much more than someone who has simply said no to the Christian messianic (let alone trinitarian) claim. An atheist could more easily do that. Thus the Jewish no to Jesus of Nazareth (who is not the Christ for us) is not an essentially negative form of self-identification. Instead, it presupposes the yes a good Jew makes by accepting the Torah revealed at Sinai, by doing what the Torah requires of him or her, and by anticipating the yes to be made to the Messiah-yet-to-come who will truly fulfill the Torahs promises. As such, Jews who think their Judaism need be nothing more than their disaffirmation of Christianity are the type of reactionaries who end up as nihilists by their negation for its own sake.
When it comes to Judaism, Lord Black makes two serious errors. These errors are due to his making differences of degree between Judaism and Christianity into differences of kind, and even making these differences of degree more than they are in fact.
First, there is no solid evidence that 80 percent of the early Jews became Christians as Black claims. Those who do invoke that spurious statistic are, in effect, making an old Christian theological claim”now, by the way, rejected by the Catholic Church since Vatican Council II in the 1960s” that Judaism and the Jews who still practice it are some sort of fossil (as the British historian Arnold Toynbee famously put it) having no vitality or even religious legitimacy in the present. Before employing this majoritarian or displacement logic, however, Conrad Black might do well to remember that Islam has now displaced Christianity in large parts of the world.
Blacks second error concerns the present state of the Jews and Judaism. What does he mean when he says Judaism, though close theologically, is more tribal and philosophical than spiritual? I assume he means tribal to be the antithesis of universal. Some Christians still do like to think of Christianity as a universal religion that is much wider and all-embracing than narrow tribal Judaism. Yet one could make a very good case that Judaism is as
as Christianity, and Christianity is as tribal as Judaism. Judaism is universal inasmuch as Jews can live their Judaism anywhere in the world (though always best lived in the Land of Israel), and anyone can become a Jew who is willing to accept the kingship of the God of Israel (who is also the Creator of the universe) and pledge himself or herself to live according to the commandments of the Torah as taught by ongoing Jewish tradition. And Christianity is as tribal as Judaism inasmuch as those Christians baptized in infancy are as much born into the Christian people (the Church as an extended tribe) by virtue of their Christian parents as I was born into the Jewish people by virtue of my Jewish parents. In fact, the tribal notion of birth being how one is joined to ones people is so strong in both Judaism and Christianity that both traditions consider converts to be born again rather than just being individual volunteers. Moreover, unlike a voluntary association, one cannot check out or be kicked out of either the Jewish people or the Christian Church, whether a native-born or naturalized member thereof.
No doubt looking at the rather assimilated Jews in his social circle, Conrad Black has not seen their Judaism (such as it is) to be an accessible faith. Yet he does recognize the Orthodox as being apart from this Jewish spiritual fault. But, are
”namely, those Jews who have faith in Gods revealed Torah and who attempt to live according to its commandments”really apart? Apart from what? Apart from whom? They are hardly apart from the Jewish tradition; they are the ones who most fully access it. And they are hardly apart from the Jewish people in the sense of being some sort of marginal fringe group. Thus, though about 20 percent to 25 percent of Canadian Jews would call themselves Orthodox (traditional might be a more inclusive description), I would say that almost twice that percentage of Canadian Jews under the age of forty probably fall into this category.
Finally, if spirituality is a palpable concern with the God“man relationship, and if Black wants to see a real live manifestation of Jewish spirituality, let him attend a service in the Orthodox synagogue where I and others like me regularly pray to God and are instructed in Gods Torah.
Wouldnt Conrad Blacks Catholicism be more genuine if it were not made by what seems to be a process of elimination, one largely made at the expense of Jews and Judaism, both of which he knows much too little?
David Novak is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies in the University of Toronto, and Vice-President of the Union for Traditional Judaism.
]]>Richard and the Jewshttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/04/014-richard-and-the-jews
Wed, 01 Apr 2009 00:00:00 -0400 In his youth in rural Ontario and rural Texas, Richard John Neuhaus had little or no contact with Jews”but as an adult his contact was constant. And this played a key role in Richard’s life and career as a priest and a public intellectual, for his constant contact with Jews went hand in hand with his interest, his vital concern, with Judaism. As Richard knew far better than the many Jews he criticized for departing from the teachings of the Jewish tradition on questions of public morality, Jews have no plausible identity when they are unfaithful to their revelation-based tradition, just as their revelation-based tradition has no worldly reality without real Jews faithfully practicing it.
But where did that intense contact begin? Who inspired it? Two famous Jews come to mind: the late Joel Teitelbaum and the late Abraham Joshua Heschel. Aside from one or two Jewish spokesmen (especially Rabbi Sol Bernards of B’nai B’rith) whom he met in the 1950s at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, when a serious Jewish“Christian relationship was just beginning, Richard’s first contact with a really Jewish community was with the Satmar community in Williamsburg. Richard came into contact with this tightly knit, highly insular, and extremely pious Hasidic group when he received his first pastorate in a largely black and Hispanic Lutheran congregation.
At this point in his life, Richard was a member of two minorities. His black and Hispanic congregants were a tiny minority in a religious communion, the vast majority of whom were of Germanic extraction. And in the Hasidic area of Williamburg, the minority status of any Christian, especially any white Christian, was immediately apparent. Yet, despite these seeming impediments, Richard became fascinated with both the intense Judaism of the Satmar hasidim and how they had flourished, both religiously and politically, in the new world.
And being the astute man of public affairs he always was, Richard quickly got to know the legendary, absolutely authoritative leader of this community, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. One could say that Rabbi Teitelbaum was the closest thing to the pope that any Jews have ever had in America, and Richard learned much about theological“political reality from the Satmar hasidim and their
Richard’s political interests and abilities were called forth, while he was still a pastor in Williamsburg, during the 1960s, in his participation in the civil-rights movement and, even more so, as a leader in the antiwar movement. In connection with these movements, Richard met Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel (who will always be Professor Heschel to me) influenced Richard’s life profoundly and, in fact, Richard could never say anything about Jews and Judaism that didn’t include reverent mention of Heschel.
Like Teitelbaum, Heschel came from a rich hasidic background. But, unlike Teitelbaum, Heschel opted to be a professor and a political activist, and not only on behalf of his fellow Jews, for Heschel was actively concerned with the moral climate of his adopted America and made that concern manifest in his leadership in both the civil rights movement and the fight against the Vietnam War. Moreover, unlike Teitelbaum, who was interested only in the non-Jews with whom he
to live, Heschel was involved with non-Jews with whom he
to live as an equal participant in a multicultural (even before that term came to be used and misused) society. Heschel was able to do that without in any way hiding or sidelining his intense Jewish faith, piety, and learning. That made him quite different from almost all the other contemporary Jewish political leaders, whose Judaism was either in the closet or nonexistent altogether.
Perhaps of more lasting significance, Heschel appreciated and profoundly understood the theological connection of Judaism and Christianity. Whereas most Jewish theologians and religious thinkers still regarded Christianity as a menacing
, Heschel understood how different the Jewish“Christian situation had become since the Holocaust. He pursued this dialogue at the highest theological level (right up to his then-secret meeting with Paul VI in 1964) because he saw so well what happens to Christianity when Christians lose contact with the people and the religion of Jesus. Thus Richard saw how, like Reinhold Niebuhr (Heschel’s close friend), Heschel’s politics, including his involvement in Jewish“Christian dialogue, was rooted in his theology, and that his theology was not just a rationalization of an essentially this-worldly, political agenda. That spoke to Richard at the deepest level.
In looking back on my Jewish contact with Richard the Christian, I think of how he always expected the Jews with whom he dealt with to be like Heschel, or, at least, to try to be like Heschel. Richard had little real interest and less patience with the Jews who would dismiss Heschel as sentimental because of his constant invocation of the Jewish past. The fact that Richard always introduced me as Heschel’s student I took to be the highest compliment, a sign of the true nature of our friendship, because it reminded me not only of who I
but of who I must ever strive to
. Because of this and so much more, for me and so many others, I pray that the world beyond all our knowing will be his dwelling place forever more.
David Novak, a member of the editorial board of First Things , is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.
]]>Theology, Politics, and Abraham Joshua Heschelhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/02/003-theology-politics-and-abraham-joshua-heschel
Fri, 01 Feb 2008 00:00:00 -0500 Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972