I argued last month that Pope Francis ought to see the reconversion of Europe as his most important task. Surely he agrees that European Christianity is in deep trouble. Surely he does not believe that Christianity no longer matters to Europe, or can no longer be compelling to Europeans. How can he ignore a catastrophe on his doorstep?
Some people asked in response: Why should a Jew care whether Europe is Christian? Rod Dreher in the American Conservative: “I am grateful for Gelernter’s encouragement, but would love to know why it matters so much to a believing Jew that Europe should be re-Christianized.” Good question, but one that is easy for me to answer. The key goes far beyond the opinions of one Jewish writer in Connecticut. It touches the heart of a fundamental change in relations between Judaism and Christianity.
My mother’s father was born near Kiev in 1899 and came to New York as a small child. When he was young, he thought of Christianity as a world of drunken mobs looking for Jews to murder with axes, especially at Easter. Of course, he changed—somewhat—as an adult. Having been reared strictly orthodox, he became a rabbi in the liberal wing of Judaism, and he admired the preaching of the eminent protestant ministers of the middle third of the last century. His synagogue in Brooklyn was across the street from a church, and he was a friend with the minister—who used to have his bells toll the theme of Kol Nidrei as Jews assembled on the evening of Yom Kippur. But despite these admirations and friendships, the church as an institution angered him his whole century-long life. The twentieth was a century that centered, after all, on the murder of Jews. His best friends among non-Jews were not ministers but pre-Cultural Revolution liberals and progressives who hated anti-Semitism—and tended to dislike and distrust Christianity, too.
Most Jews have felt that way about Christianity at least since Constantine invested the Church with the power of Rome; and that was some time ago. But among many of us that attitude has changed, because the Church itself has changed since the Second World War (everything has), and because the Jews’ anti-Christian bias—more than justified by history—has nonetheless caused the world real harm in the decades since the war. Strange but true. I’ll start with the harm.
Nazi Germany will always be one of the central nodes of human history. Naturally, Jews are among the leading historians of the Reich. As for non-Jewish historians, many or most are liberals—and the anti-Christian biases of liberalism grow louder all the time. None of the serious (non-crackpot) historians of Germany and the war let their personal prejudices affect their judgment, if they can help it. But most of us can’t ever help it, not completely. In this case, Nazi Germany is widely and deeply misunderstood by historians who have downplayed crucial facts in a way that suggests anti-Christian bias. And we can’t afford not to work hard to understand Nazi Germany, the Arschloch of human history—as the Nazis themselves would have put it (in their charming way) if only they’d taken a slightly longer view of their own achievements.
The totalitarian tyrannies of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Stalinist Russia had something crucial and telling in common. Amazingly, many of us don’t see it. All three were officially pagan regimes. The cult of the fuehrer (and the separate SS-cult), Shinto emperor-worship and the Stalin personality cult depended on the suppression of more sophisticated religions—in the first and third cases, Christianity.
Historians have too often misread the Nazis, who did not hate Christians but did hate Christianity. They saw it as a form of weakness, as a Jew-concocted poison that had helped ruin Germany. Historians have mostly failed to write about the importance of state paganism under the Nazis—both fuehrer-and-homeland worship (complete with scriptures and liturgy) in the schools and everyday life, and the special ceremonial of the SS, which had its own chapels and marriage ceremonies. Hatred of Christianity fed hatred of the Jews. Nor have we given the credit they deserve to the Christian heroes and martyrs of the anti-Nazi cause, not just Niemoller and Bonhoeffer and a few well-known others but the whole membership of the small yet robust German confessing church, and other nameless Protestants and Catholics who would not be reduced to animals.
Did German Christians rise en masse? No. But death-defying bravery is a trait not many of us have. Historians owe us a deeper, truer account of the nature of Nazism than most have provided. Nazi Jew-hatred swept the best-educated country in Europe because (many say) centuries of Christian anti-Semitism had paved the way. But Nazi denunciation of Christianity as weak Jewish nonsense also paved the way. Germans had been more restive under Christianity than any other major European people. Which paving counted more? Historians should be trying to answer that important question.
We must understand (not ignore!) Nazi hatred of Christianity so we can understand Germany, the moral character of the war in Europe, and the similarities between the three most bestial regimes in human history. Jewish anti-Christian bias is only one small factor in our lack of understanding, but it should be no factor at all. These topics are too important to shortchange.
But the most important reason for Jewish mistrust to change is that Christians have changed.
Not all of them, of course. Many of the mainstream liberal churches are anti-Zionist in a way they are anti-nothing else. When they tell Jews they are merely anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic, we can only ask: what kind of fools do you take us for? Certainly you can oppose the Israeli government and (I suppose) dislike Israel itself, yet not be an anti-Semite. But you cannot oppose Israel with a toxic ferocity reserved for it alone, lie about Israel casually and constantly, yet not be an anti-Semite. Jews are often naïve, but not that naïve.
Of course, we know that mainstream liberal churches are dying. The same holds for the liberal branches of Judaism. In recent decades, too, we have witnessed Liberalism become a religion in its own right. Ultimately, liberal Christianity makes no more sense than Muslim Christianity. Yes, there have been practicing Christians who were also liberals, but increasingly that brief sharing of goals between the two religions looks like a temporary coincidence that was bound to end. As a believing Jew, my grandfather had to break with liberal Judaism towards the end of his life.
Conservatism on the other hand is no religion, and has rarely been mistaken for one.
The attitudes of many conservative Christian churches toward Judaism have changed in important ways, and Jews should acknowledge that change. At one point, those changes were symbolized for Jews by the saintly John XXIII. But that was long ago, and we have lost the thread. It is past time for Jews and Christians to take it up again and follow it to its logical conclusion.
Jews must acknowledge this truth: Christianity is a dialect of Judaism. It is ours—Jews must own it, proudly. Judaism has not always been dead-set against evangelizing, but it was never equipped to be a religion of multitudes. It is for stubborn people who love arguing, especially with God. This is the activity that defines Judaism: the constant challenges starting with Abraham’s in Genesis. “The judge of the whole earth not doing justice?” Judaism is a turbulent faith, a spiritual roller coaster. It is an exacting religion, too, that offers little assurance about the afterlife in return; and it shamelessly celebrates life on earth as God’s greatest gift.
Judaism has a message that every last human being needs to hear—but was unsuited to deliver it. Christianity was the chosen vehicle. The whole world has been touched directly either by Christianity (or, yes, Islam, a more remote Jewish dialect)—or by the idea of the modern liberal state. The modern liberal state was invented in America and inspired by the Hebrew Bible—as interpreted every Sunday by Christian preachers, who were influenced in turn by the English state and British philosophy—both developed by Christians, in what was once a deeply Christian nation. Jews and Englishmen loathe each other, unfortunately, but Jewish ideas plus English ideas are iron and carbon, and yield a fabulously strong carbon steel.
Christianity is a dialect of Judaism, is profoundly Jewish, not just because Jesus answered the famous question about how to merit salvation (“Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”; Luke 10:25) with two Hebrew verses. Jesus responds,
What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.” (Luke 10: 26-27, citing Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18.)
Not just because the man Jesus and his mother, Paul and Peter and so many other Christian founders were Jews. Most important, because the story of the intermediary sent by God to man who was tortured to death by pagans but would not and could not remain dead, who could be killed but never die, is the story of the Jewish people. For Jews, Jesus is klal Yisrael, all Israel in the form of one man—Jesus is the Christian name for “the Jewish people.” And the Passion is Christianity’s recitation and sacralizing of Jewish history. (The Jews, of course, are repeatedly called the Lord’s first-born son in the Hebrew Bible.)
What is accomplished this way is a masterpiece of subtlety and paradox. Christians associate themselves with Jesus and his Roman murderers simultaneously. In the dark, bloody side of this extraordinary retelling, compression, intensification of history, Christians worshipped the murdered man while repeating the murder again and again, and sometimes worshipped the grieving mother while re-creating her grief. But they have passed through that age of blood; thank God it is over. They have come of age—as the Jews had to do so long ago when they were forced to leave home and confront God’s having moved out of prophecy, out of history, to the innermost depths of the soul. At last Christians can look clearly at what their faith means.
It is not time to forget (ever) or forgive (which we have no right to do), but it is time to move ahead. Jews and Christians can both look at the essence of Christianity, at the life and passion of Jesus, and accept it as true—which is a sort of miracle. To do so they must understand it in radically different ways, one seeing God’s son and the other their own selves, “God’s son”; but what’s amazing is not that they disagree along the way, but that in the end they do not. This is the true and sacred story of God and man. How long it will be before Christians and Jews generally accept this reading that joins them at the hip—like the soldiers’ church and the Dome des Invalides in Paris, two separate, unlike churches—one just a nave, one only a choir—that come together end-to-end to share one altar—is impossible to say. But it will happen some day.
It comes down to this: Christianity is the Jews’ gift to mankind; the most important gift mankind has ever received. That so many modern leftists would say to themselves, “All the more reason to hate the Jews,” merely underlines the point. The natural enemy of the Jew is the natural enemy of the Christian, too—the conscience-hater, the man who wants no witnesses.
Why should a Jew care whether Christianity lives or dies? Because he must care whether the message of Judaism lives or dies, whether the mission of Judaism fails or succeeds.
In the end, that hardly matters. The important question is not why a Jew, but why a human being should care about the fate of Christianity.
And the answer is exactly the same.
David Gelernter is the author of Judaism, A Way of Being (2009) and The Tides of Mind, forthcoming this year.
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