‘We curse Christianity three times a day’: Can Jews and Christians truly reconcile?

After many years during which Esau hated Jacob, the brothers meet. Esau rushes to Jacob, embraces him, falls on his neck, kisses him, the two burst into tears. What a thrilling reconciliation. But the Jewish Sages, according to Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 78, were not enamored of this reconciliation. They placed dots above the Hebrew word vayeshakehu (“he kissed him,” Genesis 33:4), signifying deletion. But deletion was not a real option – it was, after all, a word in the Torah – so they did a “pretend” deletion. They claimed that Esau’s kiss was one of deception, and that the intention was not to kiss (nishek) him but to bite (nashakh) – a fine wordplay.

Why, then, did they cry? Because a miracle occurred and Jacob’s neck hardened and prevented the bite from doing damage; one cried for his neck while the other cried for his teeth. Amusing? Definitely not. For the Sages of the rabbinic period, Esau was a metonym for Rome and afterward for Christianity. The possibility that Rome would reconcile with the descendants of Jacob, the Jews, never occurred to them.

But it happened in Rome, in 1965. The Second Vatican Council published “Nostra aetate,” a document in which the Catholic Church declared the abandonment of its anti-Jewish heritage and its desire to reconcile with Judaism.

An illuminating and important new book by historian Karma Ben Johanan, “Reconciliation and Its Discontents: Unresolved Tensions in Jewish-Christian Relations,” deals with the reciprocal conceptions of Catholics and Orthodox Jews in the era of reconciliation. Its first part is devoted to the enthusiasm on the Christian side at drawing closer to the Jews, as well as with the internal debates that arose in the Church after the reconciliation. In its second section, the book discusses the chilly responses of Orthodox Judaism, including the suspicions aroused by the Christians’ eagerness to turn a new leaf, and the rabbis’ concern over the possibility of excessive closeness.

This riveting book by Ben Johanan, a scholar of Christian-Jewish relations and theology who is currently teaching at the Humboldt University of Berlin, is based on library research and personal interviews with some of its protagonists. It is written with scholarly momentum and enriches the reader with essential information to help us understand both ourselves and the Other. The author is to be congratulated on her splendid writing, fresh style and eloquent, cogent turn of phrase.

As noted, in the book’s initial section, Ben Johanan sheds light on the intense endeavor by Catholic theologians to fathom the meaning of the Holocaust and the Church’s anti-Jewish heritage. On the one hand, there were guilt feelings and acceptance of responsibility; on the other hand, fear of the collapse of the theological infrastructure that had crystallized over nearly 2,000 years. The Second Vatican Council’s declaration concluded one chapter in the history of Christianity and opened a new one. The decisions that were made, however, stirred new questions, which remained unresolved today.

The declaration involved a retreat from two fundamental postulates regarding the Jews: guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion and the claim that they had ceased to be the so-called chosen people. A third notion, the aspiration to see their conversion in the End of Days, yielded to the hope that in the future all peoples would be united in a belief in one God, a formulation bearing a familiar biblical complexion. Two issues remained open: the Jewish exile and the establishment of the State of Israel.

After the Jews were exonerated of the murder of Jesus, and after it was decided that they continued to be beloved by God, the questions then arose of why they had been punished by being exiled and of what reestablishment of a Jewish state signifies. If the Jews are still beloved, what is the validity of the ancient Church dogma asserting that “there is no salvation outside the Church”? Were the Jews exempted from this rule?

The author points to the rise of a conservative trend following the Second Vatican Council, not only as a natural response to the victory of the reformers in that body, but also against the background of the student revolts of 1968 in Western Europe and the United States, which generated concerns about an erosion of belief that would lead believers to abandon their faith.

The book describes vividly the Church’s readiness to cope with the challenge of modernity, to look in the mirror and conduct a self-examination without fear of jolting the foundations on which it stands. It is no easy matter for a 2,000-year-old religion to recant dogmas that it commanded billions of believers to follow. It is no small matter to level criticism at revered individuals who were canonized, at canonical books that were taught for generation upon generation. A religion, by its nature, finds it difficult to examine itself critically, because by doing so it forgoes its aspiration to metaphysical truth. A pope sitting on Peter’s throne is not eager to declare that all his predecessors were wrong.

Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council.Credit: Peter Geymayer

Ben Johanan portrays the courage, sincerity and determination of the advocates of reform in the Church, who faced the hesitation and apprehension of the conservative camp. A high point of her book is the lucid description of the visit by Pope John Paul II to Israel in March 2000. The prayer he recited at the Western Wall, his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and his request for forgiveness from the Jewish people fomented a deep shift in the relations between Jews and Christians. His symbolic gestures created a dialogue of a new type, based on human and diplomatic friendship that pushed the doctrinal arguments into the corner of a handful of experts.

The ‘idolatry’ issue

In its second part, the book presents the internal Orthodox Jewish discourse about Christianity. The author purposefully chose Orthodoxy, of all the options, as a counterweight to the Catholic Church because of its hegemonic standing in Israel and its critical role in defining Jewish identity, although it’s doubtful this choice will curry favor with liberal American Jews. By the end, Ben Johanan concludes that, whereas Christian discourse aims at conciliation, Orthodox Jewish discourse responded to Christianity with growing hostility, which predated the Second Vatican Council and deepened thereafter.

One example is the halakhic discussion over whether Christianity constitutes avoda zara – Hebrew for “idolatry.” During the Middle Ages, there were differences of opinion over this issue. Some acknowledged that Christians believe in the divine source of the Torah and that and their religious intentions are sincere. However, in the eyes of most rabbinical adjudicators who decide matters of halakha, belief in Jesus’ divinity and in the Holy Trinity was considered proof of a multiplicity of divinities, hence idolatry. The closer relations between Jews and Christians in the modern era might have generated expectations of a softening toward Christianity, but as Yosef Salmon, a professor of history, and Prof. Aviad Hacohen, a legal scholar have shown, modern Jewish Orthodoxy continued to view Christianity as idolatry. Indeed, according to Ben Johanan, the view that Christianity is idolatry has actually become more firmly entrenched in halakhic discourse.

An increasingly negative attitude toward Christianity is also seen in attempts to restore to Jewish literature expressions inimical to Christianity and to reveal anew the truth that was concealed and censored, ever since the invention of printing, for fear of incurring Christian wrath. Among the censors in the past, some genuinely wished to be enlightened Jews, as Israeli historian Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has shown. Normalization and political freedom eliminated the fear of Christianity and served to compensate for the inferiority Jews felt for so long.

It is no easy matter for a 2,000-year-old religion to recant dogmas that it commanded billions of believers to follow.

Another question considered by the halakhic literature is whether, now that the Jews possessed power, the State of Israel should destroy the churches under its rule, or whether this course of action should be avoided only because of fear of infuriating the “goyim,” as Rabbi Yehuda Gershuni (a student of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook) and Rabbi Menachem Kasher maintained.

A more extreme approach is also apparent in the realm of music. In the 19th century, Rabbi Moshe Hazan praised Christian music effusively, whereas Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (d. 2006) expressed shock at his approach. I must note that it’s not only religious singing that bothers the Orthodox. On two occasions I have encountered a hostile response to the singing of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” (“All people become brothers”) in Beethoven’s Ninth, because it is considered to be “Christian music.”

One of the book’s important innovations is its discussion of the religious meaning of Jewish history in the school of thought of Rabbi Yehuda Ashkenazi (nicknamed “Manitou”) and rabbis from his circle. They were mostly educated in France and immigrated to Israel after the Six-Day War, drawing close to Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, a key institution of the national-religious movement, founded by Rabbi Kook in Jerusalem. Ashkenazi was among the few figures in Orthodox Judaism who was relatively well acquainted with Christianity. He maintained that for 2,000 years Christianity claimed that the Jews did not understand their own holy books, that they were no longer the chosen Israel and that they were punished with exile for crucifying the son of God. These allegations threatened the Jews’ self-identity.

According to Ashkenazi, things turned around after Israel’s establishment. Now it was Christianity that suffered from a loss of self-identity. It’s not the eyes of the Jews that are covered by a veil that prevents them from understanding the Old Testament; it’s the Christians who are blind and don’t understand the New Testament. The reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty proves that the Jews were right in their lengthy disputation with Christianity. Realization of the prophecies about the return to Zion proves that the Jewish interpretation of the Bible, not the Christian one, is the right one. Instead of the Jews serving as “witnesses of faith” for the justification of Christianity, Ashkenazi says, now the Christians served as witnesses who are astonished at the resurgence of the Jewish people.

Thus a new interpretation of the creation of the State of Israel developed. Not only a “national home” like that of other peoples, but a religious event that was meant to refute the Christian faith. Things had gone topsy-turvy, “and the time has come to reverse the method,” Manitou writes.

Rabbi Kook

Rabbi Kook

One of the many virtues of Ben Johanan’s book is its in-depth observation of the conceptual mosaic of the two religions, and of how new religious ideas develop amid unbroken preservation of the coherence and inner balance of the totality of religious thought. In contrast to their frozen image, both religions move and shift unceasingly with full awareness of themselves, of historical circumstances and of the ideas milling around them.

‘Biblical event’

Many reflections came to mind while reading the book, and I want to present three here. The first is the surprising, apparent similarity between the interpretation of history put forward by the “French” circle, and that of the Church Fathers. Indeed, Augustinian doctrine seems to be enjoying a revival in Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. Almost at the same time that the Catholic world backed away from the old theology that saw in history the realization of the Church’s victory over Judaism – that same theology, in reverse form, acquired new life among the followers of Jewish Zionist messianism. The turning point in Christendom occurred in 1965; in that Jewish community in 1967. According to Oury Cherki, one of the rabbis of that circle, the Six-Day War is to be held in even higher regard than the War of Independence. It was “a biblical event in every sense of the word.” Now it was the turn of the Jews to see history as realizing the victory of Judaism over the Church.

Regrettably, while the Church is moving forward and calling for interfaith conciliation and fraternity, Jewish Orthodox circles are reviving the old controversy and claiming victory. Rabbi Cherki even expects the Christians to believe in the Jewish people in place of Jesus, because “Jew is the divine”! Manitou writes, “Gradually the Christians are discovering that the Jew does not need to Christianize but the Christian needs to Judaize.”

Indeed, it’s perhaps pleasant to believe that the adversary is wrong, but is contemporary Judaism fated to repeat the mistakes that Christianity made in its dishonorable past? Instead of aspiring to turn Christians into Jews and to triumph in a religious disputation, it would be better for Judaism to reconcile with and respect the religions that human civilization has created.

Whereas Christian discourse aims at conciliation, Orthodox Jewish discourse responded to Christianity with growing hostility, which predated the Second Vatican Council and deepened thereafter.

An unconscious affinity with Christian patterns of thought is also discernible in the conception of the Diaspora Jew who is homeless and therefore universal. Whereas in the eyes of philosopher George Steiner and the Satmar Rebbe this is the ideal Jew, according to the doctrine of Abraham Isaac Kook, the Diaspora Jew comes across almost as a Christian. The disconnect from the practicalities of political life made him an alienated, abstract being, in the same way that Christianity preferred to abstain from material life, the biblical commandments and sexuality, and became a religion of spirituality itself.

Thus, a new ingredient – sacred territory – was added to the classic Zionist “negation of the Diaspora.” The slogan adopted by the pupils of Rabbi Kook, “Land of Israel, people of Israel, Torah of Israel,” replaced the slogan of the 18th century Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto), “The Holy One, Blessed be He, the Torah, and Israel are one.” God has been removed, his place taken by the Land of Israel, and the Torah is relegated to third place.

The religious-messianic approach of these advocates also lent a new dimension to the old dispute between Christianity and Judaism about the prophecies of redemption and solace uttered by the Hebrew Prophets. Christianity viewed them as prophecies that had been realized in the coming of Jesus and in the Roman Empire’s Christianization. Jewish thought in the Middle Ages considered them a promise of the future to come. Now the future had become reality.

Yet one could wonder: If the prophecies of the destruction of the First Temple successfully predict the razing of Jerusalem that occurred proximate to their time, and if the solace prophecies were able to foresee events that took place 2,500 years later – why did no prophet foresee the destruction of the Second Temple? And what about the long exile of the Jews, which lasted 2,000, not 70, years, or the Shoah, the most terrible disaster that ever befell the Jewish people – why were they not foreseen by the prophets who peered into the remote future? Every unbiased reader of the prophecies of consolation understands that they refer to the return to Zion after the one and only event of destruction in 586 B.C.E. that was known to the prophets. But faith and naivete are often intertwined.

A second reflection evoked by the book relates to its almost exclusive occupation with rabbis. But hostility to Christianity is found among Orthodox intellectuals as well. I will note here as a flagrant example the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “high priest” of the liberal left in Israel. The book “I Wanted to Ask You, Professor Leibowitz” (Hebrew) contains a letter the professor wrote to David Flusser, who was a professor of early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism, during the period of the Eichmann trial (in Jerusalem in 1961).

Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz

Prof. Yeshayahu LeibowitzCredit: Alex Levac

Flusser had expressed his satisfaction that Eichmann was unwilling to take the oath on a copy of the New Testament in court. “Eichmann severed himself from the God of Christianity and thereby served Christianity,” Flusser wrote. He added his hope that this “will be a historic change for my Christian brethren to cleanse their religious conscience and will make it possible for the Church to draw closer to our common Father in heaven.”

Leibowitz was furious at Flusser’s efforts “to purify the vermin [sheretz] of Christianity with a host of excuses.” In his view, it was hatred of Judaism and of Jews that had spawned Christianity, and it “found its perfect expression in the sinful folio [in Hebrew avon, sinful, plus gelion, folio – a wordplay on “Evangelion”] and the letters of the apostate by spite.”

Leibowitz used abusive language against Christianity, refrained from calling Paul the Evangelist by name and termed him an apostate “by spite,” in contrast to the narrative of his conversion from deep conviction and after Jesus was revealed to him. Christianity is an “abomination of desolation,” paganism that maliciously falsified symbols borrowed from Judaism. “We curse Christianity three times every day,” Leibowitz wrote.

He did not change his mind after the Second Vatican Council, but rather clung to his view that Christianity is “paganism.” In a 1987 letter to an unnamed correspondent, he wrote: “Your words make me suspect that you are an apostate, and I am not willing to enter into a discussion with apostates.” Meshumad, the Hebrew term, is a pejorative expression for a Jew who has converted. Leibowitz, for example, termed Heinrich Heine “the most contemptible and abominable figure in the history of the Jewish people.” In a 1975 letter he referred to a meshumad as “despised by people, violator of the covenant, blasphemer, reviler and curser of God.”

Whereas many dozens of theology students, priests and monks, Catholics and Protestants, flock to Jerusalem every year to study Judaism there, one can’t even imagine Israeli schools teaching the New Testament as supplementary background to understanding the Talmud.

At the conclusion of a class at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2000, during which I quoted passages from the New Testament, a student approached me and asked whether I would be citing more quotes in future classes. I told her that I would give her two answers. The first: yes. The second: In all the 2,700 pages of the Babylonian Talmud, there is only one quotation from a non-Jewish book, namely from the New Testament (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 116a-b). What is allowed to the Talmud is allowed also to a talmid (pupil). She never showed up in my classes again.

A final comment refers to the nature of the “Judaism” with which the Church seeks reconciliation. A reader of Ben Johanan’s book comes away with the impression that almost all the steps taken by Christian theologians refer to Judaism as the religion of the “Old Testament,” which preceded Christianity. This suggests that the dialogue between the two religions is only in its infancy, because Judaism is not the religion of the Bible but the religion of the Talmud, the rabbinical literature, the kabbala and prayer. Christian theology is still conducting a dialogue with itself – not yet with the Judaism that existed parallel to it.

Against this background, the pioneering academic research on both sides stands out favorably. Over the last generation, Jewish and Christian scholars in academia have shown great interest in parallel developments in both religions even after their paths separated. The Hebrew University has established a center for the study of Christianity, and with symbolic parallelism, the Cardinal Bea Center for the Study of Judaism has been established in Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Dozens of books and hundreds of articles published during recent decades have been devoted to addressing the intimate and complex relations between Judaism and Christianity throughout history. Karma Ben Johanan’s book is itself an important milestone in this academic opening – which, in my estimation, is a direct result of the Second Vatican Council.

Thanks to the empathy the author shows toward her subject, the final product is not only an illuminating research study but also an intellectual, cultural and political challenge. This is an important book for Jews, separately, and for Christians, separately, and also for anyone for whom the Jewish-Christian story is an important element in defining his or her identity.

I will close with a quote from the book’s epilogue: “The challenge that the establishment of the State of Israel posed to Judaism is similar to that which the empire’s Christianization posed to Christianity.” It seems to me that the author, too, hopes that the results will be different. The book proves that academia has the ability both to draw people closer and to bring peace to the world.

“Reconciliation and its Discontents: Unresolved Tensions in Jewish-Christian Relations,” by Karma Ben Johanan. Tel Aviv University Press (Hebrew), 460 pages, 98 shekels

Emeritus Professor Israel Jacob Yuval was founder and academic director of the Mandel Scholion Research Center, and headed the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the Hebrew University. His book “Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians” (Magnes Press, 2000; in Hebrew) won the 2002 Bialik Prize in Jewish Studies and Literature.

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