Monthly Archives: July 2016

Exploring the Barriers Between Christianity and Judaism: An Interview with Shalom Goldman

Exploring the Barriers Between Christianity and Judaism: An Interview with Shalom Goldman
The history of Jewish-Christian relations has been tangled and tortured, and the stories of these seven men and women reveal some of its contemporary religious, ethnic, and political complications.

By Kathleen A. Mulhern
Shalom Goldman, professor of religion at Middlebury College, has spent his professional life exploring the intersections between language, religion, imagination, and identity. His courses delve into Islamic history and its relationship with Judaism, Hebrew sacred texts, Arabic literature, Christian-Jewish relations, and the dialogue between the monotheistic traditions. (I, for one, would very much like to enroll in the class he teaches on “The Arabian Nights: Storytelling, Orientalism, and Islamic Culture.”)

In his latest book, Jewish-Christian Difference and Modern Identity: Seven Twentieth-Century Converts, Goldman lets the narratives of seven individuals shape the conversation. These lives are the stuff of movies: World War 2 heroism, kidnapping, destitution, faith, dark monastic corners, Nazi horrors, Israeli courts, visions, Zionism, and the ancient rhythms of Jewish ritual. Goldman tells the stories compellingly, letting their disturbing details, spiritual angst, and ultimate disappointments speak for themselves.

Professor Goldman and I spoke together about some of these stories, the meaning they have today for Jewish-Christian relations, and the historical threads of suffering, antagonism, and rapprochement that they reveal. For American Christians, this is a critical topic, something that they understand all too poorly and infuse with theological and political interpretations reflecting their own religious agendas. For contemporary Jews, the struggle to define Jewish identity and align their lives accordingly is increasingly fraught with tensions that confuse as much as they challenge.

What compelled you to write this book? What do you hope to accomplish through these stories?

Some of my thinking on Christian-Jewish relations was triggered by the constant irritation that the term “Judeo-Christian” causes in scholarly circles. The term itself is a brand rather than a reality, and it’s no more than seventy-five years old. The reality is that there has been a two-millennia-old antagonism between Judaism and Christianity, and I wanted to explore that relationship in its modern iteration and see if it had changed in the 20th century.

I also wanted to tell these great stories, and I could have added so many more. My college courses are taught narrative-style, and most of my scholarly work is based on narrative so it seemed best to let these historical characters have the stage.

The big conclusion was that, for close to 2000 years, the dominant opinion among clergy (both Jewish and Christian) and the learned classes of each religion was that the wall between the two faiths was solid and impenetrable. Each community felt that you are either with one or the other, with us or our enemies. This great wall, however, has large cracks in it and some thinkers are wanting to reside on both sides. In the very early church, Christians were Jews, but how long did that dual posture last? I believe it was a very short time, probably by the end of the first century, that it became clear to Jews that to become a Christian was to leave Judaism.
You tell three stories of Christians becoming Jewish, and four stories of Jews becoming Christians. The whole framework of conversion tears open the struggle to understand both one’s own spiritual allegiances and the effects these have on others. How do you think these stories inform the contemporary struggle to frame Jewish identity?

In Jewish accounts of conversion to Christianity, the key word is Shmad, apostasy. When a Jew becomes a Christian, he or she is becoming a member of another religion that contradicts Judaism. Classical pre-modern Christianity assumed that Judaism was over; it had fulfilled its purpose. And ever since the days of the early church, Judaism has defined itself against and around Christianity, and then, later, against Islam. These three religious all define themselves against the others. In relation to Christianity, Judaism is the denial of the Incarnation; in relation to Islam, it is the denial that a new prophet came in the 7th century. In fact, the more the sister religions approached Judaism, the more Judaism distanced itself. For example, the more Christians appropriated the Ten Commandments as a central statement of the moral code, the less Judaism did. In Yiddish, Christianity is called “The Dark Impurity,” a heresy that the divine incarnated in the human.

So in the stories of Jean-Marie Lustiger, Rabbi Zolli, and Brother Daniel, in particular, you see three Jews who want to become Christian and remain Jewish, taking their Jewishness with them into their new faith. This is anathema to most Jews.

As you’ve written this history, the Holocaust is the turning point. Does it remain the defining moment in the Jewish imagination? both in America and in Israel?

Yes, definitely. We see this most recently in responses to the death of Elie Wiesel who, if Jews had saints, would be declared one. (I don’t approve of this ‘beatification,’ but I am describing the response to Wiesel’s death.) Part of the key to the conversation about modern Jewish identity is the word holocaust itself, which is a problematic word. The word actually means “consumed by fire and destroyed” as a sacrifice. It comes from the Hebrew scriptures, and it’s meaningful in the context of worship. Using it in a modern historical context can imply that the slaughter of the Jews was destined or in some way divinely appointed or that the murders had a sacrificial aspect. I am among the scholars who find the use of the term deeply problematic, and when asked for a substitute, note that “the German murder of the Jews” will suffice. No theologizing is necessary, or adequate.

In the first two decades after World War 2—before ‘Holocaust’ terminology emerged and dominated the conversation, a question within the Jewish community was this: Who is responsible for the murder of the Jews? Historically, the answer was the Nazi party in Germany and those who elected and supported those party members. But on a more emotional level, the perception that the Christian world is responsible triumphed. In this view, Christians had been associated with attacks on Jews for centuries, and this has blended into the Holocaust. So, for example, the argument of Daniel Goldhagen’s 1997 book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, has been rejected by most historians, but it has embedded itself in the popular mindset. Germans, Europeans, the West, Christians—these all become complicit in the Holocaust. I’m observing the shift in perception here, not judging.
In what ways do you think Jewish identity is separable (or not) from religion, ethnicity, and nationality? It seems that there is some general historical progression of identity-shaping—from religion (up to modern times) to ethnicity (20th century) to nationality (1948-on). The religious element seems to be fading for many; the ethnic element is too diffused to be helpful; and the national element is fraught with intra-Jewish conflicts. What’s next?

Brother Daniel’s story is one of the most illustrative around this, as well as the most ironic in many ways. By rabbinic law, he was Jewish because his mother was Jewish. His conversion to Catholicism didn’t change that. Yet when he, like others in the book, applied for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, the firmly secular courts rejected him because of his religious choice. Ironically, a Jew who had renounced all religion and self-identified as an atheist was perfectly acceptable, but the choice to embrace Christianity disqualified the convert from being considered a Jew under Israeli law.

In Jerusalem, I went to the court archives and read the court documents in the Brother Daniel decision of 1962. It remains controversial in many circles. Israel is a state layered with conflicting opinions about Jewish identity. For many American Christians, this is all very fuzzy, and it’s complicated by Christianity’s own religious narratives. For instance, it’s important to differentiate between the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews in the New Testament. And the Israelites of ancient Israel are not the same people as the Jews of later history. And perhaps most importantly for Christians is that the modern Israelis are not the Israelites. (These were terms that President Eisenhower tended to confuse.) There was continuity, certainly, but equivalence, no.

There is a difference, too, between Judaism and Jewishness, between the Judaic and the Jewish, between the text and the folkways, stories, and concepts. Seinfeld is not Judaism; the five books of Moses are not Jewishness; bagels and the Torah not the same thing. There is a Jewish culture and a Judaic tradition. They may not always overlap. These stories of these seven people expose those tensions; some wanted to embrace Christianity, yet retain their Judaic traditions and culture; others wanted to abandon Christianity and embrace Judaism, but found that the culture was barred to them.

Can you give us a general layout of the current distribution of political power in Israel? How do the ultra-Orthodox, the secularists, and the average Jewish citizen see the country’s future? Can you say something about the difference between Orthodox Judaism, and ultra-Orthodox Judaism?

Until thirty years ago, religion was not a major factor in Israeli public life. In fact, until the end of the 1970s, Israeli elites were secular; there was very little religious engagement with political power. The government and military were assertively secular, and for the most part remain so. And the larger picture is that only 75 percent of the population are Jews; 25 percent are Christians, Muslims, and other religious sects.

But in the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, there was a sea change in Israeli politics. The traumas engendered by the 1973 war and the resurgence of ethnic pride among Israeli Jews of North African origin triggered a growing religious element in Israeli life. The secular founders (Ben Gurion and his colleagues) were deposed and Menachim Begin, Ariel Sharon, and others like them—who were more attuned to religious attitudes—were installed.
In Israel today, Jewish denominations like Reform or Conservative Judaism have only miniscule representation; there is only Orthodox Judaism. Even so, most Israelis are still secular in belief and practice. As many will say, “the synagogue I don’t go to must be Orthodox.” Modern Orthodox Judaism is educated, politically active, supports the settler movement, yet keeps kosher and Shabbat. Then there is also the Ultra-Orthodox community, which absolutely rejects the values of modernity in dress, lifestyle, habits, and community. They are apolitical, some are anti-Zionists, and are opposed to the secularism.

There’s an element of mysticism in some of these conversions, especially the ones that involved some kind of vision or prophetic gift. The story of Manduzio makes clear that for Jews, prophecy is closed, and the rabbis alone have the authority to interpret scriptures and discern the community’s direction. Where is the place for mysticism in Orthodox spirituality?

Rabbinic Judaism absolutely discourages visions and visionaries and miracles. For Jews, prophecy ended with the last prophets of the Hebrew Bible—Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. The teaching is that there will be no further direct revelation until ‘the end of days,’ when the Messiah comes. Until then, the Jewish tradition provides space for contemplation, ecstasy, mystery, but not for revelation. For that reason, Judaism has been called “the longest case of delayed gratification in human history.” In literary terms, this was pithily expressed by Franz Kafka who said that “the Messiah will come on the day after he’s supposed to get here.” Our job, in the meantime, is to believe that there will be redemption at some distant future point. This classical Jewish understanding, so radically different than the Christian understanding of the world as redeemed by Christ, was shaken by the events of the 20th century, and for many Jews, the state of Israel functions as the replacement of the Messianic idea and the fulfillment of Messianic expectation.

That said, the mystery of faith and conversion in these stories often involves the power of a book. Many of the protagonists in these stories discover a book, hidden or forbidden or unknown. For the Italian Catholic Sabbath-observer, Manduzio, it was the Torah, previously unknown to him, that spoke to him of divine truth; for Aaron Lustiger, the French Jewish youngster who would grow up to be the bishop of Paris, it was the New Testament, hidden from him by his parents. Edith Stein, another convert, came to Christianity by reading Teresa of Avila’s works. We forget sometimes how very powerful these sacred stories can be in an individual’s life story.

Where do we go from here? Between the Vatican’s modern efforts to extend a hand of repentance, and American Protestants’ theological support for Israel, what kind of future do Christianity and Judaism have together?

The story, in all of its magnificent complexity, continues. The relationship may be closer, but it will still be uneasy.
As taken from, July, 23, 2016

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Posted by on July 23, 2016 in Uncategorized


Why Was Moses Not Destined To Enter The Land?

Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), by  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Why Was Moses Not Destined To Enter The Land?

It is one of the most perplexing, even disturbing, passages in the Torah. Moses the faithful shepherd, who has led the Israelites for forty years, is told that he will not live to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land.

No one has cast a longer shadow over the history of the Jewish people than Moses – the man who confronted Pharaoh, announced the plagues, brought the people out of Egypt, led them through the sea and desert and suffered their serial ingratitudes; who brought the word of God to the people, and prayed for the people to God. The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God and with men and prevails.” That, supremely, was Moses, the man whose passion for justice and hyper-receptivity to the voice of God made him the greatest leader of all time. Yet he was not destined to enter the land to which he had spent his entire time as a leader travelling toward. Why?

The biblical text at this point is both lucidly clear and deeply obscure. The facts are not in doubt. Almost forty years have passed since the exodus. Most of the generation who remembered Egypt have died. So too had Miriam, Moses’ sister. The people have arrived at Kadesh in the Zin desert, and they are now close to their destination. In their new encampment, however, they find themselves without water. They complain. “If only we had perished when our brothers perished in the presence of the Lord. Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die? Why did you take us up from Egypt to bring us to this vile place, where nothing grows, not corn or figs, not vines or pomegranates? There is not even any water to drink.” The tone of voice, the petulance, is all too familiar. The Israelites have hardly deviated from it throughout. Yet suddenly we experience not deja-vu but tragedy:

Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell on their faces. The glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “Take the staff, and then with Aaron your brother assemble all the community and, in front of them all, speak to the rock and it will yield water. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock, for them and their livestock to drink.”

Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. Then he and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock, and said to them, “Listen to me, you rebels. Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?”

Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed forth in abundance, and they all drank, men and beasts.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not lead this assembly into the land which I promised to give them.”

What had Moses done wrongly? What was his sin? What offence could warrant so great a punishment as not to be privileged to see the conclusion of the mission he had been set by God?

Few passages have generated so much controversy among the commentators. Each offers his own interpretation and challenges the others. So many were the hypotheses that the nineteenth century Italian exegete R. Shmuel David Luzzatto was moved to say, “Moses committed one sin, yet the commentators have accused him of thirteen or more – each inventing some new iniquity!” One modern scholar (R. Aaron Rother, Shaarei Aharon) lists no less than twenty-five lines of approach, and there are many more. The following are the most significant:

Rashi, offering the simplest and best-known explanation, says that Moses’ sin lay in striking the rock rather than speaking to it. Had Moses done as he was commanded, the people would have learned an unforgettable lesson: “If a rock, which neither speaks nor hears nor is in need of sustenance, obeys the word of God, how much more so should we.”

Rambam (Moses Maimonides) says that Moses’ sin lay in his anger – his intemperate words to the people, “Listen to me, you rebels.” To be sure, in anyone else, this would have been considered a minor offence. However, the greater the person, the more exacting are the standards God sets. Moses was not only a leader but the supreme role-model of the Israelites. Seeing his behaviour, the people may have concluded that anger is permissible – or even that God was angry with them, which He was not.

Ramban (Nachmanides), following a suggestion of Rabbenu Chananel, says that the sin lay in saying, “Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” – implying that what was at issue was human ability rather than Divine miracle and grace.

R. Joseph Albo and others (including Ibn Ezra) suggest that the sin lay in the fact that Moses and Aaron fled from the congregation and fell on their faces, rather than standing their ground, confident that God would answer their prayers.

Abarbanel makes the ingenious suggestion that Moses and Aaron were not punished for what they did at this point. Rather, their offences lay in the distant past. Aaron sinned by making the Golden Calf. Moses sinned in sending the spies. Those were the reasons they were not privileged to enter the land. To defend their honour, however, their sins are not made explicit in the biblical text. Their actions at the rock were the proximate rather than underlying cause (a hurricane may be the proximate cause of a bridge collapsing; the underlying cause, however, was a structural weakness in the bridge itself).

More recently, the late Rav Shach zt”l suggested that Moses may have been justified in rebuking the people, but he erred in the sequence of events. First he should have given them water, showing both the power and providence of God. Only then, once they had drunk, should he have admonished them.

Difficulties, however, remain. The first is that Moses himself attributed God’s refusal to let him enter the land to His anger with the people, not just with himself: “At that time, I pleaded with the Lord, ‘O Lord God, You have begun to show your servant your greatness and your strong hand … Let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, the fine hill country and the Lebanon.’ But God was angry with me because of you …” Similarly, Psalm 106: 32 states, “By the waters of Merivah they angered the Lord and trouble came to Moses because of them.”

Second: however we identify Moses’ sin, there is still a disproportion between it and its punishment. Because of Moses’ prayers, God forgave the Israelites. Could he not forgive Moses? To deprive him of seeing the culmination of a lifetime’s efforts was surely unduly harsh. According to the Talmud, when the angels witnessed Rabbi Akiva’s death, they said, “Is this the Torah, and this its reward?” They might have asked the same question about Moses.

Third is the tantalising fact that, on a previous occasion in similar circumstances, God had told Moses to take his staff and strike the rock: precisely the act for which (for Rashi and many others) he was now punished:

The people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses, saying, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.”

It is with the deepest trepidation that one hazards a new explanation of so debated a text, but there may be a way of seeing the entire episode that ties the others together and makes sense of what otherwise seems like an impenetrable mystery.

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 5a) contains the following statement of Resh Lakish:

What is the meaning of the verse, ‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’? Did Adam have a book? Rather, it teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, showed Adam (in advance), each generation and its interpreters, each generation and its sages, each generation and its leaders.

One of the most striking features of Judaism is that it is not centred on a single figure – a founder – who dominates its entire history. To the contrary, each age gave rise to its own leaders, and they were different from one another, not only in personality but in the type of leadership they exercised. First came the age of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Then came Moses and his disciple Joshua. They were followed by a succession of figures known generically as ‘judges’, though their role was more military than judicial. With Saul, monarchy was born – though even then, kings were not the only leaders; there were prophets and priests as well. With Ezra a new figure emerges: the ‘scribe’, the teacher as hero. Then came elders, sages, masters of halakhah and aggadah. During the Mishnaic period the leader of the Jewish people was known as Nasi (and later, in Babylon, as Resh Galutah or Exilarch). Chatam Sofer in one of his Responsa (Orach Chayyim, 12) notes that though the Nasi was a scholar, his role was as much political as educational and spiritual. He was, in fact, a surrogate king. The Middle Ages saw the emergence of yet more new types: commentators, codifiers, philosophers and poets, alongside a richly varied range of leadership structures, some lay, some rabbinic, others a combination of both.

Leadership is a function of time. There is a famous dispute about Noah, whom the Torah describes as ‘perfect in his generations’. According to one view, had Noah lived in a more righteous age, he would have been greater still. According to another, he would have been merely one of many. The fact is that each generation yields the leadership appropriate to it. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) says that Ezra was worthy of bringing the Torah to Israel, had Moses not preceded him. In another passage (Menachot 29b) it says that Moses himself asked God to give the Torah through Rabbi Akiva rather than himself. One can speculate endlessly about the might-have-beens of history, but we are each cast into the world at a time not of our choosing, and we have no choice but to live within its particular challenges and constraints. For that reason, we do not compare leaders – for there are no timeless standards by which to judge them. “Jerubaal in his generation was like Moses in his generation; Bedan in his generation was like Aaron in his generation; Jepthah in his generation was like Samuel in his generation.”

Each age produces its leaders, and each leader is a function of an age. There may be – indeed there are – certain timeless truths about leadership. A leader must have courage and integrity. He must be able, say the sages, to relate to each individual according to his or her distinctive needs. Above all, a leader must constantly learn (a king must study the Torah “all the days of his life”). But these are necessary, not sufficient, conditions. A leader must be sensitive to the call of the hour – this hour, this generation, this chapter in the long story of a people. And because he or she is of a specific generation, even the greatest leader cannot meet the challenges of a different generation. That is not a failing. It is the existential condition of humanity.

The remarkable fact about Moses and the rock is the way he observes precedent. Almost forty years earlier, in similar circumstances, God had told him to take his staff and strike the rock. Now too, God told him to take his staff. Evidently Moses inferred that he was being told to act this time as he had before, which is what he does. He strikes the rock. What he failed to understand was that time had changed in one essential detail. He was facing a new generation. The people he confronted the first time were those who had spent much of their lives as slaves in Egypt. Those he now faced were born in freedom in the wilderness.

There is one critical difference between slaves and free human beings. Slaves respond to orders. Free people do not. They must be educated, informed, instructed, taught – for if not, they will not learn to take responsibility. Slaves understand that a stick is used for striking. That is how slave-masters compel obedience. Indeed that was Moses’ first encounter with his people, when he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite. But free human beings must not be struck. They respond, not to power but persuasion. They need to be spoken to. What Moses failed to hear – indeed to understand – was that the difference between God’s command then and now (“strike the rock” and “speak to the rock”) was of the essence. The symbolism in each case was precisely calibrated to the mentalities of two different generations. You strike a slave, but speak to a free person.

Moses’ inability to hear this distinction was not a failing, still less was it a sin. It was an inescapable consequence of the fact that he was mortal. A figure capable of leading slaves to freedom is not the same as one able to lead free human beings from a nomadic existence in the wilderness to the conquest and settlement of a land. These are different challenges, and they need different types of leadership. Indeed the whole biblical story of how a short journey took forty years teaches us just this truth. Great change does not take place overnight. It takes more than one generation – and therefore more than one type of leader. Moses could not become a Joshua, just as Joshua could not be another Moses. The fact that at a moment of crisis Moses reverted to an act that had been appropriate forty years before showed that time had come for the leadership to be handed on to a new generation. It is a sign of his greatness that Moses, too, recognised this fact and took the initiative in asking God (in Bemidbar ch. 27) to appoint a successor.

If this interpretation is correct, then Moses did not sin, nor was he punished. To be sure, the Torah uses language expressive of sin (“You did not believe in Me”, “You rebelled against Me”, “You trespassed against Me”, “You did not sanctify Me”). But these phrases may refer, as several commentators suggest (see the tenth interpretation cited by Abarbanel, and the commentary of Luzzatto) not to Moses and Aaron but to the people and the incident as a whole. That would explain why Moses said that “God was angry with me because of you”.

The fact that Moses was not destined to enter the promised land was not a punishment but the very condition of his (and our) mortality. It is also clear why this episode occurs in the sedra of Chukkat, which begins with the rite of the Red Heifer and purification from contact with death. We also understand why it follows on the death of Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s sister. Law and narrative are here intricately interwoven in a set of variations on the inevitability of death and the continuity of life. For each of us, there is a Jordan we will not cross, however long we live, however far we travel. “It is not for you to complete the task,” said Rabbi Tarfon, “but neither are you free to disengage from it.” But this is not inherently tragic. What we begin, others will complete – if we have taught them how.

Moses was a great leader, the greatest of all time. But he was also the supreme teacher. The difference is that his leadership lasted for forty years, while his teachings have endured for more than three thousand years (that, incidentally, is why we call him Mosheh Rabbenu, “Moses our teacher”, not “Moses our leader”). This is not to devalue leadership: to the contrary. Had Moses only taught, not led, the Israelites would not have left Egypt. The message of the rock is not that leadership does not matter: it is that leadership must be of its time. A teacher may live in the world of ancient texts and distant hopes, but a leader must hear the music of the age and address the needs and possibilities of now.

The great leaders are those who, knowledgeable of a people’s past and dedicated to its ideal future, are able to bring their contemporaries with them on the long journey from exile to redemption, neither longing for an age that was, nor rushing precipitously into an age that cannot yet be. And, as Moses understood more deeply than any other human being, the great leaders are also teachers, empowering those who come after them to continue what they have begun.

As taken from July 17, 2016

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Posted by on July 17, 2016 in Uncategorized