From Politeness to Fresh Terms for Jewish-Christian Dialogue

I am pleased to respond to an article Marvin Wilson, a pioneer in initiating dialogue between Jews and evangelical Christians. The article under consideration, both in its shorter and longer forms, invites evangelicals who have not heretofore engaged in dialogue with Jews to enter this particularly delicate conversation. As a veteran of the conversation between Jews and Christians over many decades, not only with evangelicals, I offer annotations to the essay.

This article is a primer in interfaith etiquette, an appeal for politeness. It reaches out to those evangelicals for whom conversation with Jews (and stretching forward to anticipate those with Muslims) offers a fresh opportunity for self-reflection. Those of us who have labored in this vineyard avidly seek fresh recruits to tend the vines that we have been cultivating into the future. And so Wilson has put his hand to this plow so to speak.
In this article, Wilson invites the evangelical community to act politely by inviting a posture of humility, encouraging evangelicals to eschew arrogance, self-righteousness, and combativeness in conversation with Jews. To this end, he helpfully points out attitudes and behaviors that would not be helpful. That itself is helpful.

Mastering appropriate etiquette for entering this most painful of conversations is essential, but a constructive posture alone does not advance the conversation itself. The essay does not apprise readers of the gross and violent history of Christian proselytism of Jews that lies behind the admonitory etiquette. Absent this knowledge, an uninformed evangelical readership may lack adequate background to appreciate the gravity of the call for respect that powers the primer. For example, evangelicals may believe that their desire to convert Jews to Christ is an act of love, while it is experienced by Jews as a hostile and aggressive stance that is basically disrespectful.

To the end of self-reflective engagement, it would be helpful to distinguish polemic and debate from dialogue, for these are quite different undertakings. The public literary and verbal history of Jewish-Christian relations beginning in the second century is replete with polemic in the form of arguments to demonstrate the falsehood or inferiority of the other position. In debate, formerly called disputation, each position seeks to demonstrate its superiority over the other. Polemic and debate have been the predominant means of conversation between Jews and Christians, almost always with Christians by definition having the upper hand. Dialogue is a relatively recent and quite different undertaking because it involves risk. Dialogue takes place when all parties to the conversation come to learn about the other in the other’s own terms, not in the terms in which one’s own tradition has classically interpreted the other. This is exceptionally important in the Jewish-Christian conversation because each one’s received read of the other is radically different from one’s own read of one’s own tradition and therefore of oneself.

Even more than coming to learn of the other in the other’s own terms is coming to learn of oneself based on the perspective of the other. It requires being open to seeing oneself as one is seen. Within the framework of dialogue, each party to the conversation must be open to being spoken to and enriched by the other’s theological reality. Jews have been abused by the debate format over specific points of Christian doctrine that have set the terms of engagement. Those memories burn hot in Jewish institutional memory. The issues here are not to be adjudicated by deductive demonstration but savored by those who are willing to taste a new cuisine.

While politeness toward strangers is always appropriate, and respect for their personal integrity helpful, Wilson mentions that dialogue calls for granting self-definition to the other. However, the theological terms on which Pauline Christianity is based have difficulty respecting Jewish beliefs and practices because Paul and the Gospel writers redefined Judaism as Christianity. Yet anything short of respect for Judaism in its own terms is patronizing in a dialogical setting. Christianity’s two-thousand-years-long teaching of contempt for Judaism requires Christians to develop fresh terms on which to understand and value Judaism in order for there to be parity in the conversation. What then are the fresh terms on which Jews and Christians can set aside mutual theological contempt and seek a fresh start?

Here Judaism may have an advantage over Christians because once Christianity was legalized and politically institutionalized, flexing its political muscle, Jews abandoned whatever proselytizing instincts they had. Jews have no trouble accepting other religions and recognizing that non-Jews may choose other religions. It long ago gave up the hope of “being right” or of having the truth that others lack. Thus, it may be easier for them to accept Christian integrity even when they do not understand its intricacies.

Now I turn to a few substantive matters missing from the essay before us. First, it offers no admission of both the anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism that have by and large characterized Christian treatment of Jews and Judaism both explicitly and subtly. Such recognition of Christian sinfulness toward Jews and Judaism accompanied by a request for forgiveness is generally requisite in order for Jews to accept an invitation to talk, and even then, some Jews will pass on the opportunity. Perhaps one helpful footnote here is that while Christianity carries all sin to God asking for forgiveness, Judaism distinguishes sins committed against other people from those committed against God. As for the former, Judaism sets aside an entire month each year in which individuals are expected to approach everyone they have wronged during the past year (assuming that that is feasible) and seek forgiveness. Only if the request is persistently denied does one carry it to God in prayer. The difference in the two traditions’ patterns of seeking atonement is noteworthy when approaching the other.

Second, our article offers no guidelines on the goals of such conversation. To come together in a meaningful way it is necessary for the two partners to agree on what is desired from the interchange. In dialogue, learning about the other can be a common shared goal. But if evangelicals are still coming hoping to convert Jews, whether they state that or not, it is generally problematic for several reasons. Christians are about two billion strong throughout the world, while the world’s Jewish population is estimated at 13.75 million, most of whom are in North America and Israel. Jews reasonably want Judaism to exist in the world, and Jewish defection to Christianity is a threat to the survival of the community that is already threatened by secularism. Further, because the church is arguably Judaism’s archenemy, defection to Christ has been experienced by the community as treachery.
Judaism has a strong sense of communal identity and focuses on communal political redemption, while Christianity is far more individualistic and emphasizes personal salvation. This means that Christians generally have stronger respect for acts of individual conscience while Jews highly prize group loyalty. Here is another asymmetry that Christians entering conversation with Jews would do well to consider.

Finally, in regard to Jewish apostasy to Christianity, there have been periods both in the Middle Ages and in modern Europe when Jews were pressured to convert, and that compliance with Christian desires brought social and economic advantages, or at least the lifting of civic disabilities imposed on Jews by Christian authorities. Indeed, citizenship in late medieval Spain and modern European nations as these emerged in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sometimes required Jews to apostatize. Jews have subsequently viewed Jewish apostates as weak willed, unable to tolerate the disabilities required of staying faithful.

In conjunction with the last mentioned point is the fact that Christians have wanted Jews to apostatize since Paul agonized that other Jews did not accept his gospel. Generation after generation of Christians have tried everything from sweetness to threat to force to make this happen, but most Jews have resisted. When Christians are rebuffed, some become angry and hostile, as was the case with Martin Luther. Today, as religious preference is becoming disassociated from educational, social, political, and economic opportunity, clearing the way for conversion on the grounds of sincerity alone, Christians can come to terms with the fact that Christianity holds little allure for most Jews who for the most part do not experience themselves as needing rescue from divine wrath at the totality of their sinfulness. Judaism knows nothing of either original sin or total depravity, ideas that originated with Augustine of Hippo, elaborated by Jean Calvin. Judaism contains within itself mechanisms for expiating sin and never developed the elaborate rhetoric about the wrath of God that has often powered Christian evangelism.

I offer the above to annotate the invitation to informed conversation between evangelicals and Jews. I salute Marvin Wilson for his pioneering work and hope that his legacy will be forwarded by future generations of evangelicals.