Recently I wrote a book with Father Andrew Greeley entitled The Bible and Us: A Priest and a Rabbi Read Scripture Together (Warner Books, 1990) that required me to focus on the nature of Jewish-Christian dialogue. The experience led me to conclude that much of the dialogue today is based on the faulty premise that Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally similar.
While it is true that on initial exploration Christianity looks somewhat like Judaism to a believing Jew, on closer inspection Christianity is soon seen to differ radically. In the end, for a believing Jew, the Christian family of religions is exceedingly difficult to understand.
The surface similarity ultimately, I suggest, presents obstacles; it does not facilitate understanding. If Christianity were wholly unlike Judaism, then any dialogue would begin with the recognition that the other is completely different—beyond all parallels, comparisons or contrasts.
Christians of good will often come to Judaism with the same assumption of similarity that characterizes the initial exploration of Christianity by a believing Jew. Christians think they know about Judaism—but what they know is wrong. Christians commonly suppose that Judaism is the religion of the Old Testament. But that is only partly true—and, therefore, wholly false.
The source of the seeming similarity (where in fact there is none) is that both religions rely on the same writing as Scripture. Christianity calls it the Old Testament, in contrast to the New Testament. Traditional Judaism calls it the written Torah, in contrast to the oral Torah, as part of the one whole Torah given by God at Mt. Sinai to Moses, our rabbi. The written Torah is the Hebrew Bible. The oral Torah comprises the teachings of “our sages of blessed memory” in 034the Mishnah,a two Talmudsb and Midrashc compilations.
Because we revere as God’s word some of the same writings, we take for granted that we form a single family. So, we assume, we ought to be able to understand one another. We then take it for granted that when we speak to each other we are going to be understood, and when we listen we are going to understand.
But that is not what has happened. Based on invalid assumptions, the dialogue between Judaism as a religion and Christianity as a religion has been a surface conversation that covers over profound mutual incomprehension.
The prevailing theory of the dialogue is that Jesus was a Jew and that, therefore, in order to understand Christianity, Christians must come to terms with Judaism. An important school of New Testament studies, for example, tries to identify authentic sayings of Jesus in the Gospels (as opposed to sayings only attributed to him by the later Church) by excluding sayings that they deem un-Judaic.d Other, even more important circles of New Testament scholarship look to Jewish texts as a principal source of their hermeneutics, or interpretive principles, of Christian Scripture. Theologically, a distinction is made between the Jesus of history—who was born, lived and died as a Jew—and the Christ of theology. The connection to the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity is then simple. The two religions can speak comprehensibly with one another because Christianity derives from Judaism through the person of the historical Jesus. If we wish to understand Christianity, we simply peel back the layers of “inauthentic” theology and reach back into the core, the Judaism of Jesus that lies at the heart of authentic Christianity. But for this to work, Judaism must be represented in such a way as to reject the rest of the Judaisms of that time and place that do not fit this picture; Jesus admittedly vastly reformed what was. The necessary conclusion of this line of thought is that Christianity is what Judaism ought to have become. The upshot of a dialogue with Judaism based on this kind of analysis is an apologetice for Christianity and a condemnation of Judaism as we know it—not much better than the medieval disputations—hardly the model of genuine interchange of religions attempting to take one another seriously.
Nor has Judaism contributed a more suitable example of how to take another’s religion seriously in terms of one’s own. In general, the Jewish approach to a theory of Christianity is to treat it as “the daughter faith,” adopting the metaphor of the family; or, even worse, to look with condescension on Christianity as a religion “for the gentiles” (indeed!—along with pork and shellfish, I assume); or to deem only the historical Jesus (not the theological Christ) as worthy of serious attention.
Moreover, this modern Jewish apologetic rests on the premise that Judaism understands the real historical meaning of the Hebrew Bible, while Christianity obviously does not. That is to say, Judaism finds it difficult to imagine that Isaiah really had the Virgin Mary in mind when he spoke of a virgin—or a young woman—who would conceive and bear a child (Isaiah 7:14), although Matthew’s Gospel tells us that is precisely what Isaiah had in mind (Matthew 1:22–23). Nor would any Jew suppose that Isaiah spoke of Jesus Christ when he prophesied about the suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13–53:12).
According to the Jewish apologetic, since the 035prophets did not prophesy about Jesus Christ, Judaism conveys the authentic faith of ancient Israel. The beam in the hermeneutical eye of this “inauthenticizing” of Christian interpretation is that the same hermeneutic used in Matthew is also used in the Midrash, the collection of ancient Jewish expansions of Scripture that impart a rich contemporary meaning to the already ancient text, the result being that the ancient text has no more the plain sense of the ancient writer in the Midrash than in the Christian interpretation supplied by Matthew.
From all of this, a rather radical conclusion follows: Only when Christianity sees itself as the Church fathers saw it—as new and uncontingent, as a complete revision of the history of humanity from Adam onward, and not as subordinate or heir to Judaism—and only when Judaism sees itself as the sages of the oral Torah saw it—as the statement of God’s Torah for all humanity—will the two religions recognize this simple fact: They really are totally alien to one another.
Comprehensible dialogue will begin only with the recognition of this difference. Only then can we begin to search for some form of honest communication, rather than basing our discussion on the 036assumption of sameness and the search for commonalities.
In the currently fashionable Jewish-Christian dialogue, it is common to read the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, in the context of the Judaism of that time and place. But much that the Gospel narratives take for granted is surprising to a Jewish reader. For example, someone recently asked me about burial practices in the first century. I replied that I have no evidence from the rabbinic sources that pertains to that time in particular, but, in general, a few centuries later, the men cared for the bodies of men and the women for the women. Yet the Gospels tell us how women tended the body of Jesus. What am I as a Jew to make of this? It seems to me completely surprising; I wonder if anyone found it so before. But the fact is we find Christianity truly surprising whenever we accord to its Scriptures their proper, autonomous standing. Christianity came into being as a surprising, unprecedented and entirely autonomous religious system, not as a child, whether legitimate or otherwise, of Judaism.
To appreciate the extent of the incomprehensibility between Judaism and Christianity, let us look at the account in Mark 11:15–19 in which Jesus drives the money changers out of the Temple. Some exegetes maintain that the meaning of this would be immediately comprehensible and self-evident to those who witnessed it. Jesus would be understood to have attacked the Temple. In fact, Jesus’ action would not have been understood that way at all; he would have been regarded as a madman. Here is why: The money changers performed an essential service. Before purchasing animals for sacrifice, pilgrims had to pay the half-shekel Temple tax; the money changers made this possible. They changed the diverse coinage in use at the time into the shekel. To find out what meaning this all had for a first-century Jew, we turn to the Mishnah. There we read as follows:
“On the fifteenth of that same month [Adar, preceding the month when Passover occurred, Nisan] they set up money changers’ tables in the provinces. On the twenty-fifth of Adar they set them 037up in the Temple. Once they were set up in the Temple, they began to exact pledges from those who had not paid the tax in specie. From whom do they exact a pledge? Levites, Israelites, proselytes and freed slaves, but not from women, slaves and minors” (Mishnah, Sheqalim 1:3).
What this tells us is that the money changers would take a pledge from anyone who had not paid the half-shekel Temple tax and in exchange supply the required half-shekel. The money changers were essentially collectors of the tax. To understand the importance of the tax, we must appreciate its purpose. That tax, paid by all eligible Israelites, was used to provide the daily public whole-offerings the name of the community throughout the following year. The daily whole-offering atones for the sin of each Israelite and of all Israel every day, a practice initiated in the Sinai wilderness, as explicitly required by Exodus 30:16 (“You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel remembrance before the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves”). The daily whole-offerings derived from communal funds, which were provided by every Israelite equally. They served all Israelites, individually and collectively, as atonement for sin. Thus, the half shekel tax allowed all Israelites to participate in the provision of the daily whole-offerings, which accomplished atonement for sin on behalf of the people as a whole.
Note that some who were not required to pay the tax could voluntarily do so—women, slaves or minors. But gentiles or Samaritans could not pay the tax. They could contribute free-will offerings, but they could not participate in supplying the Temple tax of a half-shekel.
What is at stake in the changing of money, then, is a matter of considerable importance. The Tosefta, an amplification of the Mishnah that reached closure about 300 A.D.,f explains as follows:
“Once they were set up in the Temple, they began to exact pledges from those who had not yet paid [Mishnah, Sheqalim 1:3]. They exact pledges from Israelites for their shekels, so that the public offerings might be made [paid for] by using their funds. This is like a man who got a sore on his foot, and the doctor had to force it and cut off his flesh so as to heal him. Thus did the Holy One, blessed be he, exact a pledge from Israelites for the payment of their shekels, so that the public offering might be made out of their funds. For public offerings appease and effect atonement between Israel and their father in heaven” (Tosefta, Sheqalim 1:6).
The parable makes the matter explicit. The doctor must cut off the flesh containing the sore so as to heal the patient. The sin is the sore on the foot. The doctor must cut off the sore; the Holy one exacts the half-shekel tax so as to make all Israelites responsible for the daily whole-offerings, which atone for Israel’s sin. The pledge with the money changers enables the payment of the tax that vides the whole-offerings that atone for sin.
All this underscores how amazing was Jesus’ action in driving the money changers out of the Temple. Some exegetes maintain that everyone at the time would have understood the meaning of Jesus’ action. I think the contrary is the case. Anyone who understood the concept of the daily whole-offerings would have found incomprehensible and unintelligible Jesus’ overturning of the money changers’ tables. Such an action would have provoked astonishment, because it would have called into question the fundamental belief that the daily whole offerings effected atonement and brought expiation for sin, and that God had so instructed Moses in the Torah. Only someone who rejected the Torah’s explicit teaching concerning the daily whole-offerings could have overturned tables—or someone who intended to set up a different table for a different purpose. Jesus’ action carries the entire message both negative and positive. Indeed, the money changers made the cultic participation of every Israelite possible; they were therefore not simply a blemish on the cult but part of its perfection. That is why I doubt that anyone can have understood what Jesus did—except, of course, Jesus and his disciples. The act, in context, was simply beyond all comprehension.
The overturning of the money changers’ tables represents the rejection of the most important rite of the Israelite cult, the daily whole-offering; it is, in effect, a statement that the daily whole-offering is no longer a means of atonement. What then would take the place of the daily whole-offering? It was to be the rite of the Eucharist: Table for table, whole-offering for whole-offering; it is through the body and blood of Christ that atonement for sin is possible. Thus, it seems to me, that the correct context in which to read the overturning of the money changers’ tables is not the destruction of the Temple, but the destruction of the institution of the sacrifice and its replacement by the Eucharist. The counterpart of Jesus’ negative action in overturning one table must be his affirmative action in setting up another table—which leads us to the Passion 038Narratives that focus on the Last Supper. When we realize how the central actions in Jesus’ life, as contemporary scholarship identifies them—first, the driving out of the money changers; second, the institution of the Eucharist—correspond with one another, and bearing in mind the broad understanding of the daily whole-offerings among Jews in general, we realize the utter incomprehensibility of Christianity in the context of Judaism. The two religious traditions, Christianity and Judaism, in their first and basic statements, really do represent one people talking about different things to another people.
This brings me back to my main point: The representation of Jesus in the Gospels constantly surprises and amazes anyone familiar with contemporaneous Judaism—just as the authors of the Gospels said.
When Jesus contrasted his teaching with what others had been saying, he underlined this simple point: The Christ of theology begins with the Jesus of history. Jesus was Jesus Christ in the Gospels and to the evangelists, as much as he was Christ Jesus to Paul; any distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith—whether invidious or favorable—ignores not only the explicit claims of the Gospels themselves but also the genuinely surprising character of the representation of Jesus—as Jesus Christ—in the context of any Judaism known at that time. The characterization, given by some exegetes such as Geza Vermes in his unfortunate Jesus the Jew,g of Jesus as a Galilean wonder worker like Honi the Circle Drawer, for example, is a total fabrication, a misreading of the Gospels and a distortion of the rabbinic evidence adduced in support of that proposition.
Where then does this leave us? Is there no bridge from Christianity “back” to Judaism? Is there no connection that links Judaism to Christianity? My position is that there is none. Moreover, there should be none. Only when we recognize that the two are utterly distinct and different can the work of attempting a dialogue begin.
How do I propose to proceed from this ground zero that I claim forms our common location? Let me begin the work of providing a new foundation for our dialogue by making one point: The only way for a believing Jew to understand Christianity is in Jewish terms, and the only way for a believing Christian to understand Judaism is in Christian terms. Since Judaism and Christianity form quite different religions with little in common, it is time for each religion to try to make sense of the other—but to make sense of the stranger’s religion in terms of one’s own.
Can I, as a believing Jew, understand in my context, in terms of my faith, the religion of the Christian?
We must begin by asking what it means to understand another’s religion. Up until now, our rather unsuccessful efforts at understanding each other’s theologies have shown us what not to attempt: A Christian theology of Judaism when it is not condescending is simply un-Christian, conceding more than Christianity has ever conceded in the past. A Jewish theology of Christianity is just as bad—and is no more authentic; Judaism cannot concede that Jesus Christ is what the Christians say, and any other judgment concerning Jesus Christ is simply beside the point. Similarly, Christianity may concede that Judaism retains its covenanted relationship with God, but it cannot then admit that converts to Judaism have taken the right route to salvation. All that Christianity can concede is that Judaism is all right for the Jews, a concession to be sure, but not of vast consequence.
But if we cannot attain a theological understanding of one another, what other understanding can we seek? My answer derives from the commonplace fact that, after all, we really do worship one God who is the same God and who is the only God—we and the Moslems with us. Within that common ground, a human task emerges before us: It is to seek in the religious experience of the other, the stranger and outsider, that with which we, within our own world, can identify.
How do we do this? Let me give an example involving the Virgin Mary. The concept of the Virgin Mary is critical in Roman Catholic Christianity, and it is exceedingly difficult for a believing Jew to understand the concept in Jewish terms. The notion of a woman with a special claim on God’s attention—how am I as a Jew to grasp this?
Jews have trouble enough dealing with the concept of Jesus as God’s only begotten son. What then are we to make of Mary? Mary, after all, is called the “Mother of God.” If we cannot grasp how any one man is more God’s son than any other, how then can we make sense of anyone woman’s being more God’s mother than any other? That is why, in the serious exchange of belief and conviction that, in our own time, Roman Catholics and Jews undertake, we bypass Mary in silence. We pretend Catholics are Protestants, for whom Mary is not a critical figure, and by our silence we deny the Roman Catholic reverence for Mary and the worship through Mary of the God we share.
To enter the path of understanding, I must find in my own tradition an analogy that will tell me what, in my context, Mary stands for in a Roman Catholic context. Let us begin with Matthew’s 040account of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, because it contains the key to what I shall present as a Jewish equivalent to Mary’s special relationship to God.
When the three wise men came to Bethlehem, “They saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him” (Matthew 2:11). They had been warned in a dream not to obey Herod’s instructions to return and tell him where the child was. An angel of the Lord then appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him, “Rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13). Joseph immediately arose “and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt” (Matthew 2:14).
The story continues:
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they were no more.’ ”
What is important here is that Mary is represented as a figure much like Rachel, protecting her children and weeping for them. The flight of the 041Holy Family to Egypt is presented as a counterpart to the exile of Israel in Jeremiah’s time. Jesus stands for Jeremiah; Mary for Rachel.
Rachel, in a Jewish reading of the Bible, stands in Judaism for some of the things that, in Roman Catholic Christianity, Mary stands for. So the power of Mary to arouse in Catholic hearts and souls a greater love for God than they would otherwise feel seems not as alien to me, a believing as it did before. I begin to understand the capacity of Roman Catholic Christians to revere Mary, to understand their response to her and her power. For what Mary stands for is a woman who bears a special—a unique—relationship to God, a relationship so compelling that God will respond to Mary in a way that God will not respond to any other person. When I ask myself, do we Jews have, in our reading of Scripture, a figure that can show me how a woman may accomplish with God what no man can do, I find the answer readily at hand. Once I have asked the question in that way—Do we have in Judaism a counterpart to Mary, a live and lovely woman to whom God listens, whose prayers carry weight more than any man’s?—the answer becomes self-evident.
And, curiously, Rachel, the Jewish “Mary,” plays a critical role in the very passage in Matthew quoted above in which Mary and Jesus figure as principals. The very way in which Mary’s ancient Israelite counterpart enters the story is exactly the way in which, in the ancient Jewish sages’ reading of Scripture, Rachel plays her part. In Matthew, Mary flees with Joseph and the infant Jesus into exile. As she goes into exile, so the Gospel tells us, there is weeping for the slaughter of the infants—045and the one who weeps is Rachel!
The story of Israel’s going into exile and the slaughter that accompanied it is familiar to every believing Jew. So is the weeping Rachel, mourning for her children as they go. Rachel of course lived nearly a millennium before the Israelite exile to Babylonia in the sixth century B.C., but she was buried on the road near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19) with knowledge aforethought. In the rabbinic elaboration (midrash) of the Book of Lamentations, known as Lamentations Rabbah, we find an account Rachel’s intervention on behalf of the people of Israel going into exile that closely parallels the Roman Catholic conception of the Virgin’s power to intervene on behalf of her supplicants. Indeed, so similar are the concepts that, understanding and feeling the anguish of Rachel, I can reach out to the Roman Catholic capacity to invoke the power of Mary, virgin and saint, in her special relationship to God.
Lest this seems extravagant, let me set forth the account in Lamentations Rabbah at some length (see the second sidebar to this article). What is important is not merely that Rachel weeps for Israel going into exile in the same way that Rachel weeps, in Matthew’s Gospel, for the slaughter of the innocents as Joseph, Mary and Jesus go into exile. That parallel is interesting and illuminating, but not to the point. What I find striking is the similarity between Rachel’s unique relationship to God in Judaism and Mary’s unique relationship to God in Roman Catholic Christianity. That is something we Jews are not accustomed to noting—yet it is there. When you read this passage from Lamentations Rabbah, note how very much Rachel is like Mary (or Mary like Rachel). Each succeeds when all other intervention fails. In the passage from Lamentations Rabbah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then Moses—the four most important figures in the firmament of Judaism—all appeal to God to forgive the Israelites for their sins that threaten exile and destruction. Nothing much happens. The holy men are told by an implacable God, “It is a decree from before me.” All that the people can hope for is that, in due course, when their sins are expiated by suffering, God will be reconciled with them and restore them to their land.
Moses is required to report this back to the “fathers of the world”— Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The dirge then rises. Nature’s curses are witnesses to Israel’s catastrophe. And the climax: “And yet you [God] remain silent.’
Rachel then speaks—not of sacrifice, but of love, invoking the power of the love she expressed for her sister Leah through self-restraint and self-sacrifice.h Rachel’s argument with God introduces what the men had failed to invoke—the love relationship within a family. Rachel asks God to relate to Israel in much the same way that Rachel had loved Leah. Should Rachel not have been jealous of Leah, who was substituted on Rachel’s wedding night (Genesis 29:23–25)? Did Rachel not have the right to demand justice? Yet look at Rachel.
Rachel’s message to God: If I could do it, so can you. Why this excess of jealousy for idolatry, which is nothing? For this “you have sent my children into exile?” Enough already. And God responds—not to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses or Jeremiah, but to Rachel: “For Rachel I am going to bring the Israelites back to their land.” And he did.
So too when Joseph, Mary and Jesus went into exile, Rachel weeps. The result is the same: The Holy Family will come home, and they do come home.
That is why in Mary I can find a Christian Rachel, whose prayers count when the prayers of great men, the fathers of the world, fall to the ground. God listens to the mother, God responds to her plea, because God’s love for us (so the prophets tell us again and again) finds its analogy and counterpart in the love of the husband for his wife and the wife for her husband and in the love of a mother for her children—above all, that love. No wonder when Rachel weeps, God listens. How hard, then, can it be for me to find in Mary that sympathetic, special friend that Roman Catholics have known for two thousand years! Not so hard at all.
Is this just a scholastic point about parallels? I hope not. My point is just the opposite. My problem with Mary, the heart of Roman Catholic Christianity, is how to find a way of understanding, with empathy, what Roman Catholics feel about Mary. If the Roman Catholic faith centers, as it does, upon a figure that is wholly other, with whom I cannot identify, for whom, in my own experience, I can find no counterpart, then in the end I can never make sense of what Roman Catholic Christians cherish. But if I can say, “Yes, in your world, your path leads you to the feet of Mary, and, coming out of my world, I can follow that quest and that yearning of yours,” then there can be sympathy, perhaps even empathy. When I do this, Roman Catholic Christianity in its reverence for the Virgin is no longer wholly other. It is not my own, and never can be. But it is a faith I can grasp, perceive with respect as a road to God, to the same God who gave me the Torah at Sinai.
My God, who demands my obedience, hears the voice of Rachel, so why not Mary? The two religions are utterly different, bearing different messages and distinctive meanings, each for its own faithful. Yet out of my religion I can make sense of that other, that different religion. And that, it seems to me, should define our task for the coming century, when, for the first time in two millennia, good will joins Christians and Jews in the service of the one God—whom alone we now serve—for the first time ever, together.
Recently I wrote a book with Father Andrew Greeley entitled The Bible and Us: A Priest and a Rabbi Read Scripture Together (Warner Books, 1990) that required me to focus on the nature of Jewish-Christian dialogue. The experience led me to conclude that much of the dialogue today is based on the faulty premise that Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally similar. While it is true that on initial exploration Christianity looks somewhat like Judaism to a believing Jew, on closer inspection Christianity is soon seen to differ radically. In the end, for a believing Jew, the Christian family of […]