January 12, 2020
Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9
Christianity is a Gentile’s way of being Jewish, that is what I have come to believe.
I woke up to Judaism through TV as a youngster. It was late in my high school years in a rural Midwestern town where there were no Jews when I saw a PBS series on Jewish civilization written and narrated by Abba Eban—I was smitten with the discovery.
Then I returned to dormancy until college. I was affiliated with the chapel programs which did not include or teach about Judaism—but typical big name speakers included Martin Luther King and Billy Graham.
However, my favorite teacher was Jewish and in the most interesting possible way. Walter Kaufmann, a Prof. in the Philosophy Dept. from whom I took two courses and audited a third, was born in pre-war Germany to Lutheran parents.
In his youth, this precocious child studied religion and was eventually drawn to Judaism, to which he ultimately converted. But before long, it happened that his parents informed him they had to flee Germany—but why? Because, it turned out that his parents were actually Jewish converts to Christianity as a disguise which they feared would certainly be unveiled.
So they fled of course, but it means that here was someone who preternaturally found his own way back to his true spiritual roots. However, as a philosopher, Kaufmann rejected religion and was a self-described atheist, but that again is not the whole story. This man, who was the translator of Nietzsche, Buber and Goethe into English, and the author of a book entitled, “The Faith of a Heretic,” was at base a religious man, whose last book was entitled, “Religion in Four Dimensions: In Life, in Art, in History, and as Religion.”
What came across to me was a spiritual man bearing a stringent, stringent critique of religion for the lies we tell ourselves. Kaufmann’s criterion for an acceptable theology—Jewish or Christian or otherwise—was honesty.
I remember years later a former student of his telling me that Walter Kaufmann made it possible for this student to leave Christianity. We laughed when I said Kaufmann had made it possible for me to stay in Christianity under the conditions he set!
From there I went to Divinity School whereupon I was shocked when, among the reports coming from Vatican II was one entitled, Nostra Aetate in which the condemnation of the Jews for killing Christ was annulled. I was shocked, not because I disagreed with it, of course, but because I had been so clueless about the Roman Catholic Church’s position and history relative to the Jews and, come to find out, other churches, too, held the same views, some of which fully maintained their condemnation of the Jews, such as American evangelistical fundamentalism (like the Southern Baptist Convention which held that God does not hear the prayers of the Jews).
The hostile feelings between Christians and Jews were mutual (although Jews never had power over Christians)—Jews regarded Christians as idolaters, Christians rejected Jews for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. But the Holocaust was already 25 years distant in the past when honesty was finally starting to be practiced in Christian churches about the Christian role in perpetuating and effecting the extermination of European Jewry.
And I started to understand better the vulnerability of all Jewish life before the dominant Christian culture, being anti-Semitic as it was from its roots to the present when Jews are now undergoing murderous assaults on worshipers in their synagogues and homes.
Since Vatican II, the civil rights movement saw close cooperation and collaboration between Christians and Jews. Since then, Jewish thinkers entered into the stream of Christian life, like Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Chaim Potok, Richard Rubenstein. Since then, in 1978, a 4-part television mini-series, entitled “Shoah,” starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, for the first time portrayed victims of the Nazi genocide. Watched by 120 million Americans, polls showed 85% of them discussed it with family or friends. Since then, Facing History Facing Ourselves was founded in 1976 in Brookline—now with 180 staff members, it has trained over 10,000 teachers, who have taught over half a million students in the U.S. and Canada. Since then, in 1993, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened.
And yet this stain upon our society irrationally persists. Holocaust deniers, pro-Nazi rallies persist.
We must fight it.
Maggie Hassan, Democratic US representative from New Hampshire, in yesterday’s Boston Globe, calls for, besides the funding of preventive and protective measures against such domestic terrorism, “standing together to reject the growing hatred and intolerance that are an affront to the core American values that we hold dear.”
Well, we Christians have additional work to do in this vein—we must reposition ourselves and change historically “Christian” values.
We can start right here today by seeing that our biblical stories intermingle, that our institutional stories intermingle. All the while down the brutal road of our intermingled histories, Jews and Christians have been breathing the same spiritual air, the same biblical air.
Jesus was a Jew, his first followers were Jews, they read Torah, the prophets and the Psalms and the Wisdom literature together. Christianity was a Jewish sect; as it grew, the intra-mural competitiveness generated the anti-Semitic references we find in some places in the New Testament.
We are two very closely related religions, but how do we state this? Are we thus parent and child? Cousins, the children of related parents? Siblings, like sisters, or brothers like Cain and Abel? The biological analogies are fruitless—none of them implies parity, nor the exact shades of separateness and sameness true to the existential reality.
But there is another way to look at ourselves: for this whole time, Jews and Christians have been walking and talking, albeit in mutual hostility, in parallel and sometimes overlapping paths. These two paths must be viewed as a single path, in the eyes of one theologian, Paul Van Buren, now deceased but my erstwhile colleague when I was University Chaplain at Tufts. That single path he calls our mutual Way, however conflictual that has been. He devoted three volumes to a theology of the Jewish-Christian experience, written in the 1980s in the aftermath of Vatican II, at a time when universities were creating Jewish studies’ programs and named chairs.
We are, van Buren argued, and always have been, in a relationship we can never get out of, and relationships are redeemable—there is no denying or rejecting it.
How do we start?
- We start right here today. By lifting up this Bible, acknowledging that our Bible is one-part NT and 10-parts OT, we affirm that the Bible of the people of Israel is our Bible. The Old Testament was a pejorative term applied by Christians to signify the superiority of Christ and the scriptures inspired by him. We now speak instead of the Hebrew Bible.
- But note, we Christians are dependent exclusively upon Jewish vocabulary to speak of God and our faith. Whether Isaiah’s servant song is a prediction of Jesus or not, the image of the suffering servant we apply to Jesus comes from Isaiah.
- We start by affirming that Christians worship the same God as do the people Israel.
- We start by affirming that God remains faithful to the people Israel, as to us who know God’s faithfulness through Jesus.
- We start by affirming that Torah and Christ, the respective centers of Judaism and Christianity, each acknowledges that the twin characteristics of God are righteousness and mercy.
Moving together in the Way, Van Buren wrote, moving perpetually in conversation, ever in communication, demonstrates our intention to replace estrangement with reconciliation.
Van Buren held that Christians live under three imperatives. In so walking in the Way, Christians must see ourselves as responsible to the people Israel. In so walking in the Way, we must see ourselves as responsible to our scriptures and the churches of them. Finally, in so walking in the Way, we must see ourselves as responsible to the world for the sake of the world.
To reposition ourselves and change historically “Christian” values, Christians have only to take up the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur’s invitation to discover “the latent life of the myths and the play of their secret affinities.” For, in both our scriptures is hidden the same life and many secret correspondences. This truth merits representation on a flag of its own—where could we put that?
It won’t be so much a matter of conversion to another religion as it was with Walter Kaufmann, so much as incarnating this awareness in our daily walk in the Way, with humility, contrition, and expectant joy.
I once asked the Jewish scholar and theologian, Prof. Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, what she thought of my proposition that Christianity is just a Gentile’s way of being Jewish,” and she laughed and said, “Well, if only that hadn’t conveniently let you out of 2000 years of persecution!”
Walking out this church door this morning, know that you are walking in the Way together with the people Israel.