Sunday, February 1, 2015
Can Jews Be Christian? Can Christians Be Jews?
This piece has been with me for some time. I’ve been sitting on it, concerned that my all-inclusive, non-sectarian religious humanism might be compromised by posting it on this blog. Yet, when I review the entire spectrum of my experience with Jewish-Christian dialogue, as a religious/theological question, I find that the discussants often talk past each other. While it is the case that Jews and Christians share more theological positions than we might at first acknowledge, as Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg taught us in his book For the Sake of Heaven and Earth, in certain respects, Jews and Christians speak very different religious languages. The divide actually has little to do with whether or not the Messiah has already come. The religious quest of Christianity is, in so many ways, very different from the religious quest of Judaism. Were we to address this significant difference, we might actually be in a much better position to understand and learn from each other.
Last year I found myself frequently engaged in thinking and writing about a topic that seemed quite hot at the time. There were any number of stories that tackled a topic that seems to rear its head every now and again, most often around the winter solstice and the spring equinox, i.e., Hanukkah/Christmas and Passover/Easter. Can one be both Jewish and Christian? Jessie Szalay, a contributor to The Jewish Forward, interviewed Susan Katz Miller, author of a book by that title, Being Both. At about the same time, President George W. Bush appeared at a fundraising event sponsored by the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, and the Pew Research Center’s 2013 Survey of U.S. Jews found that 34% of respondents said that one can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. A report indicated that about half of the members of the South Dakota State University’s Hillel affiliate are Messianic Jews. So where does that leave us with regard to the issue of “being both.”
As someone deeply involved in interfaith affairs and who also teaches Bible, including the New Testament, at a Catholic university, I would respectfully submit that the question as to whether one can be both Jewish and Christian actually misframes the issue. Rather I would suggest that while these two religious traditions have much to share, they also embody very different world views, having nothing really to do with whether or not the Messiah has arrived. It seems to me that the primary religious quest of the Christian, the goal, the telos of Christianity is simply not the same as the religious quest of the Jew.
Early Christianity was an apocalyptic movement, part of a widespread view among Jews in Roman occupied Palestine of the 1st century that the current era was about to end. God was about to intervene through a cataclysmic event that would wipe out the corrupt Roman regime and institute, at minimum, a new world order if not a new cosmic order. This new order would be overseen by a Messiah, a descendent of King David, who would reign as God’s anointed king in the new era. According to the New Testament, into this cauldron of Jewish visionary ideals stepped Jesus of Nazareth, announcing “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14)
Of course, only those who were pure, free of sin, would be able to enter the imminent kingdom of God. That is the background of Jesus’ statement about repentance and that is what motivated the work of John the Baptist. The contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus praised John as a good man who encouraged people to become baptized for the purpose of remitting sin and purifying the body (Ant.18, 5, 2).
These early Christians were convinced that the arrival of the Kingdom of God was imminent. As Rabbi David Wolpe pointed out in a Jewish Forward Forum piece, “Why Jews Should Not Accept Jesus,” the gospel narratives depict Jesus preaching to his disciples that “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1) For Jesus’ early followers, including many Jews, disappointment, even disillusionment arose when the Kingdom did not arrive. In response, Christian theology shifted from the notion of an imminent apocalypse to a focus on the related notion of salvation from sin. Only those saved from sin could enter the Kingdom of God. But as it became clear that this was no imminent earthly event, the Kingdom of God, or the parallel Kingdom of Heaven, became a sort of posthumous anteroom for the believers, those saved from sin as they awaited the Parousia, the second coming of Christ, the final apocalypse and the ultimate new cosmic and world order that only the saved elect would enter.
For the apostle Paul, whose concept of original sin was the earliest theological formulation of this shift, sin is an innate quality that infected all of humanity as a consequence of the first humans’ defiant consumption of the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. We are all infected with this sin, and only Christ’s salvific sacrifice can atone for it. Only through faith in this salvific sacrifice may one enter the Kingdom of Heaven. That, it seems to me, is the primary religious quest of the Christian: to achieve salvation from sin and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
That is not the religious quest of the Jew. While Jewish theology certainly ponders aspects of sin, punishment and posthumous judgment, these are by no means primary preoccupations. For Jews, sin is not some irreparable human flaw that only the incarnation and death of God can erase. Sin is a result of humanity’s free will, a feature of our having been created in the divine image. It is not something from which we have to be “saved.” It is something that we struggle to overcome. In that struggle, we turn to God for forgiveness, and in that turning, we are granted atonement.
Salvation from sin is not the religious quest of the Jew. Torah is the religious quest of the Jew, not as a means of salvation from sin, but as a way of fulfilling our covenant relationship to God; as a way of incorporating the divine will, the divine plan for the universe and for human society into our lives, projecting that divine will out into the world through the performance of mitzvot, divine instructions, thereby sanctifying our lives and the world by injecting it with the presence of God. This is a very different religious quest.