One cannot express interest in the implications of the Jewish/Christian connection and relationship without finally encountering the works of Michael Wyschogrod. As a Jewish “Barthian,” Wyschogrod is an invaluable resource in reflecting on the issues involved in the process of bringing Jews and Gentiles together into one body. Though not accepting Christianity himself, Wyschogrod, as an Orthodox Jew, honestly considers the issues from the perspectives of the Torah, the New Testament Scriptures, and modern culture. His monumental work in this direction is Abraham’s Promise.
In this book, Wyschogrod honestly appraises the forces that move Christianity and Judaism together as much as the ones that remain keeping them apart. It should be required reading for anyone interested in Messianic Judaism, the Hebrew Roots movement, or the letters of Paul in general. In this post, I shall first review some interesting observations Wyschogrod has about his own Jewish community. In my next post, I will review his rather challenging view about the Christian faith.
Though he glosses over the subject rather quickly in this work at least, Wyschogrod notes that the loss of the sacrificial system appears to be more telling than many Jews proclaim. For example, on pages 70-71, he states:
With the destruction of the Temple, sacrifice was no longer possible, and the emphasis therefore shifted to repentance. Not a few Christian voices have quoted Leviticus 17:11, “the life of a creature is in the blood, and I appoint it to make expiation on the altar for yourselves: it is the blood, that is the life, that makes expiation.” Because of the absence of sacrifice, Judaism, it was argued, has lost the possibility of expiation. Christianity, on the other hand, was born in the ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God, a sacrifice that was reenacted frequently in the Eucharist. For this reason, atonement of sin was no longer available in Judaism and very much available in Christianity…The usual Jewish response to this argument was to stress the power of repentance.
In response Wyschogrod notes the Pentateuchal and prophetic passages used by modern rabbis to support the replacement of sacrifice with repentance actually “reveal that they were directed at sacrifices without repentance and not at sacrifices as such..” Though Wyschogrod immediately backpedals in support of the rabbic concept, his scriptural critique has hit home too powerfully. Judaism only can support the effectiveness of repentance over sacrifice (not with sacrifice) not due to the Torah but only because they have no choice in the matter. If forgiveness without sacrifice is not possible then they are doomed and abandoned without Christ.
Which brings me to Wyschogrod’s second telling admission about Judaism: it is not actually a religion based on the written scriptures as it is the oral traditions and Talmuds. Being drawn in by Karl Barth, Wyschogrod remains more loyal and centered on the written Tanahk (Old Testament) than to the Oral traditions. This emphasis on the written Word makes him an exception among his own people.
My Judaism is biblical. This means that the Hebrew Bible is the most important source of my religious self-definition. I have been criticized in some Orthodox Jewish circles for being insufficiently rabbinic. Many Orthodox Jews equate Judaism with rabbinic Judaism. The study of the Bible is neglected and nothing important is ever settled by reference to any biblical text. The biblical text, in a sense, does not even exist independently of the rabbinic commentary. The Oral Torah is seen as the real Torah with the Written Torah as an almost unnecessary historical appendage. (Page 226)
I am strongly convinced that Wyschogrod is correct in this regard. The modern Jewish religion is as much if not more of a variation from the Old Covenant as is modern Christianity. It is the rabbinic commentary on the scriptures that define Jewish life and not the scriptures themselves. Therefore, as I have noted elsewhere the modern rituals of the Jewish community should have little bearing on Christian worship or ethics. These are rabbinic regulations that should never have influence over the church.
By centering themselves on traditions and ordinances outside of the written word, Jews have basically distorted their original faith and in many ways “transgressed the law of God for the sake of their tradition.” (Mat 15:3) In this way, as I have also noted, Jews have no more the right to lay claim to continuing the Old Covenant faith than they do to say Christians do not. Both are versions of “Reformed Judaism.” Christianity reads the Old Covenant through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus. The rabbinic Jews do so through the filters of the mishnah (codified in 200 C.E.) and the Talmuds (400-600 C.E.).
Indeed, Christianity may have a better claim to being in the line of the Old Covenant faith. Though tempted at times through such groups as the Marcionites, the church never dropped the Old Covenant writings from their scriptures. And even though they considered the Old Covenant fulfilled by the New, the importance of the Tanahk was never diminished. One only need read the number of quotations in the early church pastors to recognize that truth. Wyschogrod recognizes it as well:
It must be remembered that, while the church has insisted on reading the Hebrew Bible through the lenses of the New Testament, it has not taught that the New Testament annuls or renders inoperative the Hebrew Bible. For classical Christianity, the New Testament interprets but does not cancel the Old. That is why a form of Judaism lives in the church and the church cannot understand itself without coming to terms with the Judaism within it. (Page 167)
The “form of Judaism” that lives within the church is its love of the Hebrew written scriptures. In this way, the church cannot drop its connection to Israel and what blogger Oswald Spengler at the Asia Times calls “the Judaizing heresy.” Despite what you may think of the doctrine of supersessionism, by considering itself the New Israel, at least the church keeps itself tied to the Israelite Scriptures. It does so in ways that modern rabbinic Israel—as a people or a nation—does not.
Which may be why most Jews will not dialogue to any extent with Christians and any form of evangelism is forbidden in the land of Israel. Despite the fact that they pay lip service to the Tanahk (Old Testament), they know it is the Christians that actually follow it, much more directly than do they. This realization leaves them vulnerable.
The fact is that a significant portion of Judaism, namely the Orthodox branch, refuses to engage in any dialogue with Christianity. For many Orthodox Jews, Christianity is a foreign religion with which Jews should have as little to do with as possible. From the point of view of right-wing Orthodoxy, dialogue with Christianity can only lead to a blurring of the division between the two faiths, and to Jewish conversion. (Page 154, emphasis added.)
It is for this reason that Judaism fears us. The New Perspective on Paul, the Context Group scholars, and even the Hebrew Roots movements within modern Christianity has made it more open and appreciative and even conducive to the Hebrew Scriptures core beliefs and cultural structures than ever before in history. For this reason, more now than perhaps even in the first century, modern Christianity is open to moving more toward that same culture (properly defined). For this same reason, modern Christianity may repeat the attraction it had for Jews in its first three centuries of existence. In this context, the unease of the rabbis may be justified. They may have more to fear from Christianity now that hostility on our side has been reduced and even become close to non-existent. Indeed, I believe they have more reason to fear our friendship more than our enmity.
Or in that friendship, we both may regain our souls.