Ethnicity, Humility, Revelation, and Action


After briefly explaining my own interest in interfaith dialogue in light of the historical points that Professor Marvin Wilson makes in his thought-provoking and wise essay, “Christians Engaging Culture: A Better Way,” I will engage four of his philosophical points from my Jewish perspective. In doing so, I hope to support and reinforce the thrust in Jewish-evangelical Christian dialogue that he describes and espouses, for I think that the direction he suggests in his essay, reflecting decades of work in this area, is exactly the right way to go.

My Own Interest in Interfaith Dialogue

Except in Israel, Jews are a minority in every nation in which they live, including the United States, which is home to the second-largest Jewish community. It is hard, therefore, for American Jews not to be aware of Christian culture and to interact with it. Jews learn at least something of the history of Christian anti-Semitism through discussions at home and in their religious training, and in some cases they learn about that directly when they are called “Christ killers” or when some negative stereotype of Jews or Judaism is hurled at them. Furthermore, Jews learn from their Christian friends or from reading Christian biblical or liturgical sources that Christianity itself portrays Jews negatively, as deniers of Christ, as legalistic, and as lacking love and forgiveness. This view of Jews has been transferred to secular literature by Christians too, perhaps most obviously in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Ultimately, most Christians have been taught to see anyone who denies that Jesus is Christ as damned to hell, and so even well-meaning Christians historically have tried to convert Jews to Christianity to save their souls. This is still true today for some groups: in fact, that was exactly the message of a full-page advertisement in the New York Times several years ago sponsored by a large group of evangelical Christian leaders. We love you, and therefore we want you to become Christian! So Jews’ minority status, the history of Christian anti-Semitism, Christian sacred and secular literature, and the doctrines of Christianity itself have all fostered negative views of Jews among Christians. No wonder Jews are wary of interacting on any serious religious level with Christians!

Vatican II’s document Nostra Aetate (1965) was nothing short of revolutionary in the history of the relationship between Christians and Jews, and in subsequent years several Protestant denominations followed suit. No longer were all Jews at the time of Jesus, let alone any Jews since, to be held responsible for the death of Jesus, and Judaism was not to be seen as superseded by Christianity but rather, to use Paul’s metaphor, the root from which Christianity sprang. God does not retract his commitments, and so the Covenant between God and the Jews is to be seen as eternally valid.

These developments in the larger world and my own personal background have led me to be intensely interested in improving Jewish-Christian relations in the future. I became part of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue, sponsored by the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, as soon as it began in 1973, and I have served as its co-chair for the last fifteen years. Through the National Conference of Christians and Jews, my rabbinical students met each year with seminarians studying for the ministry or priesthood in local seminaries. I was part of several projects of the World Council of Churches. It was, however, through my friendship with Dr. Richard Mouw, immediate past president of Fuller Theological Seminary, that I came to know and interact with evangelical Christians over the last twenty years. The reflections below on Dr. Wilson’s essay are rooted in the long and fruitful interactions that this rabbi has had with Christians about serious theological and moral issues.

Beliefs vs. Birth and Deeds

Possibly the hardest thing for Christians to understand about Judaism is that, unlike Christianity, Judaism is not based on an official set of beliefs that define one as a Jew. Judaism certainly has some core beliefs—ethical monotheism, the sanctity of both the Written and Oral Torah, and strong commitments to the People and Land of Israel and to making this world better for everyone (tikkun olam, “repairing the world”), for example—but one can be a Jew without believing in any of them. That is because Jewish identity is defined by being born to a Jewish woman or reborn through the rites of conversion. There thus can be, and are, secular Jews—that is, people who very much identify as Jews but who rarely, if ever, set foot in a synagogue or observe Jewish home rituals. They may nevertheless express their Jewish identity through efforts to improve the world, through Zionist activities, or through cultural activities involving Jewish music, art, literature, dance, drama, and foods, or simply through social activities. This is clearly not the preferred mode to be a Jew from the point of view of classical Judaism, but as many as half of American Jews are secular.

Even those who identify religiously, however, often feel unprepared to engage in theological discussions with Christians because Jews historically have interpreted their beliefs in multiple ways.1 Therefore Jews cannot point to a creed with a clear and official meaning and state confidently that this is what Judaism stands for.

More importantly, Judaism emphasizes following God’s laws to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6), and so many Jews would much rather talk about how their religion influences their practices than talk about beliefs. Put another way, Judaism is a religion of deeds rather than creeds. This means that even agreeing on the topics to be discussed in a dialogue between Jews and Christians can be a problem.


The other thing that Christians have a hard time understanding is why Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah. The first thing to note about this issue is that although Judaism definitely has Messianic beliefs—in fact, Christianity inherited them from Judaism—for Christians the belief that Jesus is Christ is central to their identity as Christians, while for Jews the belief in the Messiah is just barely on the radar screen, if it is at all. So Jews find it odd that Christians focus so much on life after death and heaven and hell when there is so much work to be done to make this life better. Although no Jewish theology that I know of says this exactly, Jews effectively believe that if we do what God wants of us in this life by following God’s laws and making life better for everyone, God will take care of whatever happens after death, if anything.

Why, though, do Jews not see Jesus as the Messiah? It is primarily because Jesus did not fulfill the job description. Isaiah (chaps. 2 and 11), Micah (chap. 4), Zechariah (chap. 9), and other biblical sources describe the Messiah as, among other things, bringing universal peace, and Jesus did not do that. Christians do not deny that we live in a world of wars, poverty, and prejudice, and hence the Christian doctrine of the Second Coming explains the delayed fulfillment of these messianic promises. Jews, in contrast, think that Jesus was a rabbi, as he is called in the Gospels, one whose teachings have much in common with those of other first-century rabbis, but not the Messiah, to whose coming we still look forward. As one of my friends put it, when the Messiah comes, we will ask him, “Is this your first trip or your second?”!

Revelation and the Oral Torah

Revelation is already problematic in the Bible. How do you distinguish a true prophecy from a false one? Jeremiah complains bitterly about false prophets (e.g., 6:13–15; 14:4; 23:23–40; 27:9–18; 28:1–17; 29:21–32). Deuteronomy twice tries to distinguish true prophets from false ones. In chapter 13, it says that a true prophet says exactly what I, Moses, say. This, of course, makes it impossible for God to reveal anything new to us. Chapter 18 says that a true prophet predicts something that comes true. The problems with this are, first, some of the accepted prophets of the Hebrew Bible predict things that do not come true,2 and, second, all that a clever person need do is predict something for hundreds of years from now, and nobody will know during the person’s lifetime whether he or she is a true prophet or not. Probably as a result of considerations like these Zechariah (13:2–4) already (late sixth century B.C.E.) says,

In that day . . . I will also make the “prophets” and the unclean spirit vanish from the land. If anyone “prophesies” thereafter, his own father and mother, who brought him into the world, will say to him, “You shall die, for you have lied in the name of the Lord, and his own father and mother, who brought him into the world, will put him to death when he “prophesies.” In that day, every “prophet” will be ashamed of the “visions” [he had] when he “prophesied.”

The Rabbis maintain that prophecy ceased shortly after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. It was replaced, however, by new interpretations of the one accepted revelation, the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), which is understood as being more trustworthy than any of the other biblical prophecies because, according to the biblical account, 600,000 Israelite men witnessed the revelation event at Mount Sinai (Exod 12:37; 19:15–20:14). Thus the Talmud (b. Bava Batra 12a) says this:

R. Abdimi from Haifa said: Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, the prophetic gift was taken away from the prophets and given to the Sages. – Is then a Sage not also a prophet? – What he meant was this: although it has been taken from the prophets, it has not been taken from the Sages. Amemar said: A Sage is even superior to a prophet, as it says, “And a prophet has a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). Who is (usually) compared with whom? Is not the smaller compared with the greater?

The Sages to whom this source refers are the people who know and interpret the Torah and the later tradition; from the first century C.E. on, they are called “rabbis.” This source therefore means that Jews see the texts of the Tradition as begging for new interpretations to reveal what God wants of us in our time, for “There are seventy faces to the Torah”3—that is, the Torah is open to multiple interpretations and applications. This requires a high degree of epistemological humility in our claims of knowledge of God’s will as we see that other intelligent and moral people interpret the Bible differently. This clearly will not satisfy those who want things neat and clean, but the Jewish tradition maintains that at Sinai itself each person there understood what God was saying according to his or her own abilities.4 The community must decide which of many interpretations of legal passages will become the communal standard of practice, but in theological and other types of verses, where no standardization is required (remember Judaism is not built on creeds), people may and should interpret the texts in as many ways as possible to gain as much meaning from them as one can. Furthermore, revelation is ongoing, for the text of the Torah may reveal new meanings to us each time we read it. This entire approach to revelation is, of course, radically different from fundamentalist doctrines of an “inerrant text” that has one, and only one, correct meaning, and so those Christians who believe some version of the latter will have much to discuss with Jews.

Lessons Learned

My own interactions with evangelical Christians have thankfully shattered many of the stereotypes that I had had of them: that they are overwhelmingly uneducated, that they are conservative to the point of being mean, and that they are too worried about hell to have a sense of humor. Richard Mouw, by contrast, is among the brightest, well-read, thoughtful, compassionate, and funniest people I know, and the evangelical Christians to whom he has introduced me have shared many of those traits. I would hope that Christians entering into serious dialogue with Jews will likewise gain a more realistic and positive view of Jews and that together we can seek to make the world a better place for us all.


1See, for example, Louis Jacobs, Principles of the Jewish Faith (New York: Vallentine Mitchel, 1964), in which he demonstrates how each of the beliefs on Maimonides’ list of thirteen was interpreted in multiple ways by his successors.

2For example, Jeremiah 22:19 predicts an ignominious end to King Yehoyakim, but he dies a natural death while still king (2 Kings 24:6). Ezekiel predicted the destruction of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek 26:7–14), but he himself later acknowledges that the king’s siege of the city was unsuccessful (Ezek 29:17–20).

3Numbers Rabbah 13:15–16.

4Exodus Rabbah 5:9.