Dear Father X,
I feel that in matters of the heart, of which faith surely is one, we must be unfailingly honest. Yet I’m afraid there is nothing I could say to you with perfect honesty, because to do so would be to malign your faith, and faith of any kind is sacred, and what is sacred must be honored, even if it is only sacred to others.
But the truth is, I believe you affect a superiority to me in matters you know nothing about. No, I’m not referring to the nature of the divine. In that, each of us knows as much or as little as the other. This, perhaps, is why we are bound by simple decency to honor the other man’s faith.
Does Christianity prescribe respect for other faiths? On the contrary. To the extent this renders frankness only on my part uncouth and fruitless, I regard you quite warily. Yet to the extent your life’s enterprise involves the promulgation of beauty and compassion in this world, I consider you a kindred spirit.
My wife would like you to baptize our son. She cannot comprehend what this means for a Jew, and our common scriptures forbid me from putting a stumbling block in front of the blind. (Leviticus 19:14) Then there is the matter of the Golden Rule: how can I deny a sacrament to a believer, even if it’s a sacrilege for me? I suppose you don’t need me to tell you that ethics sometimes trump faith, and love sometimes trumps law. Christianity talks a big game on both counts. Yet I wouldn’t expect a Christian to take my feelings seriously in this matter, and my only consolation is to remind myself that in any case, no man can know the mind of God.
So it isn’t that I regard my particular faith as realer than yours or anyone’s. I’ve heard tales of miracles from adherents of every faith tradition, and it would be as easy for a man of no faith to dismiss them utterly as it is difficult for a man of true faith to dismiss any of them. If I were to remark about the uncanny reality inherent in myth, I surely wouldn’t be the first. So although each religion dismisses the other’s claims, when the simple and true believer of any tradition recounts a transcendent experience, I tend to believe it. For what if (say) God is as the Jews describe Him, yet sends miraculous signs to worthy Christians or Muslims that accord with their beliefs, out of infinite love of their devotion, regardless of its errors? Or (conversely), what if God is as the Christians or Muslims say, but sends signs to worthy Jews out of respect for their persistence, however misguided? What if we all err in roughly equal proportion, and need one other to make up the difference?
When I was a child, the Hebrew Bible seemed to speak to me directly, in secret, idiosyncratic communion. Every Saturday in shul on my grandfather’s knee; in solitude, late at night, perusing his bookshelf. Perhaps it was some antediluvian spirit that chose me to thrust itself upon: Jacob and the Angel, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Burning Bush, Joshua at Jericho, Samuel’s visit to Jesse, David’s flight from Saul, Solomon asking for wisdom, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones. These legends seemed to contain a lost key, an inkling of eternity.
So I’m not concerned here with historicity, nor to pit revelation against revelation. Rather, my concern is to salvage something from the death of god. In this, I do not deny but rather affirm that the Christian dispensation has its place. Yet you ask me, essentially, to forsake my fathers, to compromise my most fundamental integrity at the spearhead of their accumulated wisdom and experience, and exchange the flickering entrée to eternity they handed down to me for a mere sense of relief. Even if Christian theology is correct in every respect and Judaism is entirely in error—can it be possible to respect someone who asks such things of others? Even if it does not violate the letter of the First Commandment, it violates its spirit, and strikes me as perfectly analogous to Ivan Karamazov’s suggestion that the edifice of human happiness be build upon the foundation of the torture and unrequited tears of a single, innocent creature. So what Judaism forbids, above all, is flexibility of conscience.
Your scriptures claim there is neither Jew nor Greek, for we are all one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28) But if not for the distinction of family and tribe, where would we derive the very experience of solidarity that might then be applied to the stranger? (Rabbi Hillel had a pretty neat resolution for that little paradox.) And while we agree that universal reason precedes matter, (in my view, John 1:1 is the single point where Christianity really exceeds and innovates upon Judaism, even if it was cribbed from the Stoics) it seems to me unlikely such an entity could ever be satisfactorily comprehended—certainly not on another man’s terms of assurance, nor such that its constituent parts might be enumerated with the specificity that Christian theologians have always brought to the task. But again, supposing I’m in error somehow, so what? Who isn’t? The journey is more important than the destination, and Jewish dialectic tension and intellectual agonizing cannot be salved but only extinguished by Christian grace.
There have long been many who believe this would be for the best, but they’re rarely forthright about this conviction—they euphemize, they prevaricate, and they always seem to drag a vaguely afflicted conscience around behind their intellectual levity. Perhaps it’s better to extinguish a candle than curse the darkness. But desecration is the essence of crime, and crime is not a matter of degrees, but of intent. So please don’t pretend that I’m missing something, or presume to suggest how easy it would be for me to overlook various Christian teachings, or rely on elided interpretations of them. What kind of belief would that be, anyhow? It’s unprincipled.
But enough of ontology. Regrettably, the politics here simply cannot be avoided. When has Christianity not been implicated in politics, in the most sordid affairs of this world? The pharisees of Gospel fame are classic figments of Freudian projection. And while the Tanakh does hold that “By Me kings reign, and rulers decree justice,” (Proverbs 8:15) it also says He removes them (Daniel 2:21), presumably not by airbrushing. So it doesn’t follow that “consequently, the one who resists authority is opposing what God has set in place.” (Romans 13:2)
Incidentally, when Jesus tells Pilate that “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of the greater sin,” (John 19:11) it is curiously sycophantic. Love thine enemy, turn the other cheek, render unto Caesar. This isn’t morality, it’s a civics lesson.
Is it any wonder that for eighteen centuries this creed of yours unified and palliated in precisely the same proportion as it endeared coachman to duke, reduced the slave before his driver, and blessed the condemned with his executioner in the same breath? Because originally, the message of the Gospels’ Jesus to the Jews is, in large part, to cease resisting Rome. Certainly this is the only way that Luke 19 can be given a coherent reading.
But what good is it to wrestle with spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12) if only Jesus is not required to ask nicely? (Titus 3:1) And yet, no Christian people smarting under an infidel yoke has or ever will be condemned from any pulpit as graspers and sensualists simply for taking up arms in defense of their freedom to worship. Christianity has never enjoined anyone but the Jews to lay down their arms in such a predicament. Back when Christians wanted to vanquish Muslims, at least they accepted the necessity of fighting them.
Growing up Jewish, they beat you over the head so much with tales of persecution that in modern times, it all takes on an allegorical quality, or that of a horror story. Until I was an adult, anti-semitism—vehement, full-hilt anti-semitism—was something I understood only dryly. But once I’d encountered enough of it, I had to wonder what it would mean if such sentiments were pervasive, and when I asked myself that question I realized, viscerally, all of a sudden, what sheer intransigent execration—its precipitous depth—my ancestors endured, in spite of how easy it would have been for them to break and be done with it as you now enjoin me to do.
Though he was more of a christian—that is to say, a railing perfectionist—than he supposed, Nietzsche had a better rejoinder when he wrote that
Every Jew possesses in the history of his fathers and grandfathers a great fund of examples of the coldest self-possession and endurance in fearful situations, of the subtlest outwitting and exploitation of chance and misfortune; their courage beneath the cloak of miserable submission, their heroism in spernere si sperni surpasses the virtues of all the saints…. and the virtues which pertain to all who suffer have likewise never ceased to adorn them. (Dawn of Day, 205)
The irony of this—that it is the Jew in history who most conforms to the Christ archetype—ought to produce a wincing mortification in any introspective Christian. You say you wish to see the Jews perfected, but isn’t it you who seek to be perfected through us?
Can it be a coincidence that the Church has seen its sharpest decline in public prestige and moral legitimacy only since the emancipation of the Jews? So thoroughly is Christianity predicated on the negation of Judaism that any Jew’s conversion represents its ultimate legitimation. No penitent drunk or gap-toothed Papuan’s baptism could ever serve to vindicate Christianity like the chastened, exhausted collapse of a Hebrew before the smug mercy of his ancestors’ tormentors. Yet without recourse to project inner foreboding upon we recalcitrants—as if into a spittoon—St. Augustine’s advice to “seek not abroad” had finally to be taken, and we don’t much like when the abyss gazes back into us now, do we? Anyone can see how few self-supposed Christians are keen to really take up the Great Commission now that it threatens to cost them just a fraction of what it once did at Rome. More of the redeemed gave up their lives in those days than are willing to give up Instagram and a matching 401(k) in ours.
But you are someone who has taken it up—I have nothing but the deepest respect for your faith and works—and if I thought I could tell you any of what I’m writing down now, I have no doubt we would relate to one another preternaturally, you as spurned priest and I as execrated Jew, locked in antagonistic yet mutual, ascetical love and fear of the Almighty. My ultimate enemy, like yours, is Mammon and his priests, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and my own corollary impulses. Of course, a true friend will be the enemy of our enemy. So I’m not holding out for your blessing, but I wouldn’t refuse it, either.