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

23 Jul

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


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