The only significant religious dialogues that have ever taken place between Jews and Christians have been Christians trying to convert Jews and Jews responding by trying to discredit Christian theology. I have been blessed with several Christian friends who have truly inspired me with their devotion. The basis of the relationship is a shared love of Israel and a belief that the modern state is the manifestation of Biblical prophecy. But one of the unspoken rules of our friendship is that they do not preach the Gospel of Jesus to me. After a lifelong search for my Jewish soul, I consider myself to be unconvertible so any attempt would be, at its very worst, an annoyance. But the few times I have questioned them about aspects of their religion, they have been enormously reluctant to answer. Conversely, they are curious about Judaism and several of them have astounded me with their intimate knowledge that would put many rabbis to shame. In our discussions, I have been forced to dance around or entirely ignore rabbinic restrictions that prohibit proselytizing to gentiles.
But I am innately distrustful of unilateral relationships. Kabbalah talks about ohr chozer (the returning light) in which God’s light comes down and fills a vessel (the person) and shatters him. The light returns and the vessel is rebuilt through mitzvoth (Torah commandments) so the process can be repeated, making the vessel more suited for the divine with each meeting. But the most astounding aspect of this process is that when the light returns to heaven, it has been changed by its contact with the vessel. From this holy paradigm, I have known that if my relationship with Christians was to be real, I would also be changed by the contact.
I would like to suggest a new paradigm for Jewish-Christian relations. This relationship can be a powerfully symbiotic experience. Jews and Christians can relate deeply, sharing their relationship with God. and they can each walk away stronger, the Jews being more connected to Torah and the Christians being more connected to Jesus.
In theory, this should not be such a stretch since we share both a bible and the God of Israel.
This is absolutely the antithesis of interfaith dialogue. As a Jew, interfaith dialogue was always anathema for me. It is a modern version of the Haskala, the Jewish “enlightenment” movement of the 1700-1800s in Europe. My understanding of it was that it was an attempt to erase the “otherness” of Judaism, resulting in a version of Judaism that more closely resembled Christianity, at least in its trappings. It was a movement based in the fear of Christian anti-Semitism, proclaiming, “Please do not kill us, we are like you.” For this to be a valid appeal, it had to be firmly rooted in a rejection of Israel which was the source of our exile otherness from the time of our slavery in Egypt.
Orthodox Judaism has always responded to the exile by building walls, amplifying the differences. This became self-destructive in some aspects as Christianity is based in Judaism. Many basic concepts were lifted directly from Judaism and Orthodoxy was forced to suppress many important aspects of our religion. The Star of Bethlehem was based on the Star of Judah taken directly from the blessings of Balaam. But the idea that a star would precede the Messiah was suppressed among Jews since it was “too Christian.” This can, I believe, be said about the entire concept of the end-of-days and the Messiah which is not generally a major focus of Torah Judaism (with the glaring exception of Chabad). Jewish history has also had several false Messiahs.
I have also had several less religious Jewish friends approach me and ask if Judaism believes in heaven. I was shocked because olamn ha’ba (the world that is coming) is discussed at length in the Talmud and rabbinic literature, even in commentaries on the Torah. But this is not discussed at length in Conservative or Reform synagogues. I believe because they are wary of the Christian emphasis on the subject. Perhaps they do not want the common ground to draw their already secular people into the pervasive Christian culture or perhaps to maintain distance.
Perhaps more subtle but equaly disturbing for me as a Torah observant Jew is that in Judaism, we are taught to perform mittzvoth in an almost unthinking manner, whether we understand them or not. The Torah commandments are divided into two categories; chukim (laws) and mishpatim (judgments). The reasoning behind chukim was unknowable yet we performed them nonetheless. Conjecture behind the chukim was generally discourages. But for some reason, many laws were assigned the purpose of socially distancing Jews from Christians. We could not share their food, they could not be trusted to prepare our food,and we were strictly forbidden from drinking wine that was handled by a non-Jew. Many Jews mistakenly attribute these restrictions, especially the restriction against wine, as a means oif preventing Jews from socializing with non-Jews or drinking alcohol with them. The prohibition against wine is explicitly expressed in halachic literature. It is based in the idolatrous practice of wine libations. Yet this has been twisted in order to reinforce the estrangement of Christians from Jews.
The existence of modern Israel changes all these equations. Statistical reality assures me that I have little to fear that Christian missionaries in Israel will result in my grandchildren (may God bless me) praying in a church. Christians are a minority in Israel and after generations of living among Muslims, the indigenous Arab Christians are secretive, afraid to display their beliefs. To be frank., Christian missionaries in Israel have always seemed a bit silly to me. Preaching to Jews in the Jewish state seems absurd, a holdover from a different reality in which Jews were a minority on the verge of disappearing and the eternal scapegoat for Christian religious fervor. The entire process of missionary work is like suspenders on a snake; familiar but absurdly misplaced and absolutely useless. The fact is that it is effective but an enormous investment of resources is required to have what amounts to a minimal effect. Even secular Jews shake their heads at these attempts. Missionary attempts in Israel almost exclusively target the marginalized; abused women and Russians who are probably not Jewish to begin with.
I would like to suggest a possible benefit for Christians in this initiative. As a Jew, Jesus came from a tradition of dialectic, Perhaps the mandate to preach the gospel was a continuation of this dialectic. At the Pentecost, Jesus was telling his followers not to be silent about their faith, to go out and discuss it with others, not necessarily in an attempt to convert others (since, as a Jew, Jesus would have prohibited that effort) but as a means of developing and strengthening their faith, as Jews do when we learn in Chevruta (study partner). This system of dialectic, essential to Jewish learning, is highly confrontational, precisely the opposite of meditative practices.
This tradition of dialectic is epitomized by the pairing of Rabbi Shim‘on ben Lakish, a former highwayman, and Rabbi Yochanan, the greatest scholar of the generation. The two became ardent study partners. Once they engaged in a dispute over ritual impurity pertaining to different kinds of knives and weapons. Rabbi Yochanan remarked, “A robber knows his own tools”, alluding to Reish Lakish’s life as a bandit. Reish Lakish felt so ashamed that he became ill and died. Struck with guilt, Rabbi Yochanan was in despair at the death of his study partner so he was sent the second greatest scholar of the generation, Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat, to act as his study partner. After a period of time, Rabbi Yochanan rejected the new study partner. He complained that whenever he raised an idea, Rabbi Eleazar would espouse it, bringing several precedents to strengthen Rabbi Yochanan’s position. He lamented the loss of Reish Lakish who, when presented with a position by Rabbi Yochanan, would vigorously oppose it. Rabbi Yochanan’s despondency was so great, that he is recorded as eventually losing his sanity.
In the Talmudic dialectic, each side recognizes the other as holy truth and a different path to serving the Creator. Jews feel most comfortable when arguing, as Abraham did with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah and Jacob did with the angel. The template for Jewish-Christian relations was set in Rivka’s womb when Jacob and Esau wrestled. The true sign of the renewed brotherhood will be when we can once again argue.
Aristotle is quoted as saying, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I am suggesting that Jews can learn from Christians, even be inspired by their faith, while still retaining an uncorrupted Jewish faith. And vice versa. This can, in my humble opinion, only be achieved if each side recognizes the other as traveling along his divinely assigned path.
I think this parallel symbiotic journey was hinted at when, in Genesis 33, Esau suggested to Jacob that they join forces and travel together. Jacob demurred, suggesting that he lag behind and they join together in the future.
Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.” Genesis 33:14
The Bible does not, in fact, describe such a later meeting and since the Bible only tells truth, this future meeting must be prophetic. I think this is what we are witnessing when Christians and Jews come together now in such an unprecedented manner.
The inspiration for this new stage in spiritual dialogue came from the book, “Five Years with Orthodox Jews” written by my dear friend Bob O’Dell who has taught me much about Christianity and its roots in Judaism. I was also inspired by and amazing Biblical insights from Rabbi Tuly Weisz.