Tsvi Bisk

Tsvi Bisk – The Optimistic Jew Chapter 7 – Living With The Christians

tsvi bisk

Living With The Christians


Tsvi Bisk

Living With The Christians

 The Jewish Diaspora resides in Christian and post-Christian countries. Israel’s two most important relationships are with the United States and the European Union. Consequently the near future of the Jewish people is tied to Christian and post-Christian societies. So even though Israel strives to integrate into the Moslem Middle East and to develop close connections with India, China and Japan, Jewry’s relationship with “Christendom” should be a primary concern.

Today it is the seductive power of uncritical ecumenism and the glib cliché of “all ‘religions’ are really the same” that challenge the Jewish future, not inquisitions, pogroms, and holocausts. “Religion” is in quotation marks because Judaism, like Confucianism, is as much a life system as it is a religion in the Christian sense. I believe the terms Jewish tradition, Jewish worldview, or Jewish ideology convey a truer sense of Jewishness than the term Jewish religion.

This is not just an exercise in semantics. The future of Jewish-Christian relations must be based upon a reaffirmation of Jewish cultural particularity and the end of Jewish apologetics. We Jews are the minority and are obliged to be unambiguous regarding our differences with Christianity. Ecumenism does not mean the blurring of differences for fear of offending those with a different view of life, or shading our view of the world in order to be socially acceptable and immune to physical and political intimidation.

This requires a 21st century reaffirmation of the Enlightenment principle of separation between church and state. Enlightenment principles are not the enemy of modern Jewish identity and survival, as some neo-Orthodox thinkers now claim; they are a prerequisite for continued Jewish identity and survival.

Ecumenism should simply mean good planetary citizenship based on the same principles as the American republic: freedom of inquiry and freedom of conscience. These principles require us not to murder one another or harm one another because we have different views of the world. We can and should cooperate with Christians and adherents of other faiths and philosophical outlooks as responsible citizens of our respective countries and of the planet. But the “ecumenical” blurring of differences is creating Jewish indifference to the Jewish tradition.

We should be mindful, however, that today most Christians of whatever denomination are indifferent to doctrinal issues and are content to conduct respectful relationships with Jews (and one another) outside a theological frame of reference. I hope, therefore, that what follows does not in anyway inhibit or damage the fruitful Christian-Jewish cooperation of the past 50 years.

Judeo-Christian Ethic: Myth and Reality

What is similar and what is different between the Jewish worldview and the Christian worldview? With clarity comes understanding, and with understanding comes mutual respect. Judaism and Christianity are in general agreement about many moral principles regarding human life. It is in the moral living of life on a daily basis that we discover significant differences.

Jews and Christians accept the Ten Commandments as the foundation of morality. So do the Moslems. Buddhists, Confucians, Shintoists, and animistic religions also have similar moral principles. This is a practical requirement of civilization. Human beings must live in society to survive. To do so, they must not murder one another nor steal from one another etc. For this practical reason, all great religions and philosophical systems have similar moral principles.

Christians and Moslems accept the Jewish maxim that human beings are created in the image of God, are equal in “his” eyes, and inherently valuable as individuals. This belief is particular to monotheistic religions. This would be a Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethic.

If human beings are valuable in themselves, their lives are valuable and have meaning. If they are created in the image of God, they have natural rights that no earthly power can take away. These are called “inalienable rights”. Individuals are sanctified for having been made in the image of God. In its secularized form, the concept of individual sanctity has served as the basis for resistance to tyranny as well as for constitutional protections of individual rights.


Some Differences between Judaism and Christianity

At the every day level of moral decision making the “Judeo-Christian ethic” is frequently a phrase without genuine meaning. Comparative perspectives on abortion and altruism versus egoism highlight this.

Jews justify abortion when the fetus threatens the life of the mother on the grounds of self-defense. This is in accord with the Talmudic dictum, “He who comes to kill you, arise and kill him first.” In the Jewish tradition, self-defense is a moral obligation, not a moral right, even regarding an unborn fetus. Such argumentation is alien to Christianity, but it is a concrete expression of a first principle of Judaism: the unconditional right to our own lives.

On the other hand, the Christian ideal is to be Christ-like, to constantly ask what Jesus would have done. What Jesus did was to sacrifice himself so that humanity could be purified of sin and be saved. The Christian ethical structure is based upon the most famous case of altruism in human history, someone unconditionally giving up his life for others. I would not presume to challenge the spiritual or therapeutic power of the crucifixion story for believing Christians or the positive role it played in civilizing barbarian Europe. I would only say that it cannot be accommodated into a Jewish belief system. A Jew cannot be a Jew and be for the Jesus of the crucifixion story. Jews would view unconditional self-sacrifice as an incongruous form of human sacrifice. Judaism forbids one to engage in reckless altruism that threatens one’s life.

This Jewish ideal is demonstrated by a famous Talmudic case: Mayim Le Shtaim (water for two). A modern version of this story would go like this: Two individuals have to cross a dry desert. Their survival depends on each of them taking two full canteens of water, the minimum needed to survive the crossing; anything less than two full canteens means certain death. At the point of no return and after they have each consumed one canteen, one of them discovers that he forgot to fill his second canteen. What is the moral obligation of the individual who remembered to fill both canteens? Remember, if he shares his remaining canteen with his forgetful friend he too will surely die.

A believing Christian, whose personal ideal is to be Christ-like, will almost certainly share his remaining water and pray to God that they will both be spared. He will risk sacrificing himself in order to be like Christ, placing his life in the hands of fate and faith. The rabbis who discussed this case, however, concluded that not only was the responsible person not morally obligated to share his water with the irresponsible person; it would be a moral transgression if he did so.

In the Jewish tradition, a responsible person has no moral obligation to risk sacrificing his life because an irresponsible person has placed himself in danger. Judaism celebrates the heroism of the soldier sacrificing himself for his comrades or the parent for the child but does not obligate us to sacrifice our lives as a condition for justifying our lives. If our very existence causes suffering to other beings, we have the moral obligation to try to ameliorate that suffering, but we have no obligation or moral right to sacrifice ourselves in order to relieve that suffering.

Superficial Ecumenism

The Judeo-Christian ethic has become a fashionable phrase in recent years because of a shallow ecumenism which hides underlying considerations. I believe Christians use this phrase for positive and negative reasons.

Positive: Since the Holocaust, Christians have recognized how Christian anti-Semitism contributed to the greatest crime in human annals. This realization horrified them as human beings and as Christians because it endangered the foundational bedrock of Christianity as a religion of love. By stressing the common ethical bond, they wanted to demonstrate the similarities of the two religions thereby heading off manifestations of anti-Semitism amongst their own future coreligionists. It was a sincere attempt after the fact to make amends.

Negative: The “Jews for Jesus” and “Messianic Jews” use this phrase as a strategy for breaking down Jewish resistance to their proselytizing efforts by way of Jewish symbols. They argue their case in the following way: “our ethical view of the world is the same, we are not asking you to give up your Jewish culture, all we are doing is adding on Jesus who himself was a practicing Jew. You are not losing anything, or changing anything, you are only gaining spiritual added value.”

Belief in Jesus as personal savior and the feeling of being born again and liberated from past sins has tremendous psychological appeal and therapeutic value for those who have led a life of troubles or anti-social and self-destructive behavior. Therefore, this method of argument and proselytizing strategy has had some success in the Jewish community.

The Jews, on the other hand, use the term Judeo-Christian ethic because it can be used to defuse potential anti-Semitism. It not only provides an ideological shield against future hostility it signifies acceptance into Christian society.

Some Primary Jewish Principles

Judaism is characterized by several principles that clarify some differences with Christianity.

The war against idolatry

The worship of anything that can be conceived of in a material or bodily sense would be considered idolatry for Jews. The very attempt to define or materialize or personalize God is idolatrous for the Jew.

The inherent inability to positively define the concept of “God”

The expression “I believe in God’ is problematic for Jews who understand the essence of Judaism, even though belief in the existence of God is the first of the 613 commandments. To utter that sentence, they would first require a clear, objective definition of what God is and then clarify what they mean by belief. Here we must refer back to Maimonides’ “negative theology”,—that is, what we cannot say about Godas an alternative to Christian “positive theology,” the attempt to describe the nature of God.

Moses says to the “voice” emanating from the burning bush: “They (the People of Israel) will say unto me: what is his name? What shall I say unto them?” The common translation of God’s reply is “I am who I am” or “I am that I am”. A more precise translation would be “I will be what I will be [an indefinite formulation, implying incompleteness: in biblical Hebrew it is the imperfect tense and in Modern Hebrew the future tense] . . . say unto the children of Israel: ‘I will be’ hath sent me unto you . . . this is my name forever . . . my memorial unto all generations”.

The unmediated individual connection with God

This is not a personal relationship with God. One cannot have a personal relationship with something that is not a person and that is beyond definition. What cannot be defined cannot be mediated, neither by a rabbi nor a priest nor Jesus. A Jew might have an intimate “relationship” with his own idea or sense of what God might be. He might even “appeal to him,”, “praise him,” “talk to him,” “argue with him,” or even “reprimand him,” but a Jew cannot have a personal relationship with God.

A stress on right action rather than right belief

Jews most often ask “do you keep the commandments?” and only rarely “do you believe in God?” The defining characteristic of the Jew is proper behavior not proper belief. No matter what the differences between the various trends of Judaism, all would agree that Judaism is behavior centered. Jews dispute about what acts and which commandments—not about which beliefs.

A classic Jewish story exemplifies this tradition. A yeshiva student approaches the head of the yeshiva in an attitude of trepidation and distress. “Rabbi I have a terrible problem.” “What is your problem, my son?” “I no longer am able to believe in God.” The rabbi ponders this astounding news and responds: “All right, but what has that to do with yiddishkeit?” In other words, what has that to do with being a good Jew? Would such an answer be possible for a believing Christian?

The moral sovereignty and autonomy of the individual

The essence of Judaism is that people have absolute responsibility over their own lives. Jews cannot blame an outside force (the Devil) for bad behavior or look to an outside force (Jesus) to sanction or forgive behavior. “Bar Mitzvah” is the Jewish coming of age as an adult responsible for his or her behavior. To be adult means to exercise autonomous reason and to take responsibility for the rest of your life.

Catholics are forgiven their sins (against God and against man) in confession; Protestants are forgiven or cleansed of their sins (against God and against man), literally, born again, when they are saved. On Yom Kippur, Jews are forgiven only for their transgressions against God. They cannot be forgiven by God for sins against other people but only by those people themselves.

The Jewish God could be an absolute monarch, but has become a constitutional monarch ruling over autonomous individuals with certain unalienable rights—even vis-à-vis God. This is exemplified by the remarkable Talmudic story of Rabbi Eliezer trying to convince his colleagues of the justice of his position by calling on God. When a heavenly voice declared that Eliezer was right, Rabbi Jeremiah, representing the opposition majority opinion, responded that “Torah was given to us on Sinai, and hence we have no need to pay heed to a heavenly voice.” In other words, when autonomous human beings are discussing the rights and wrongs of an issue God has no place in the discussion. God seems to have agreed with this because according to the rest of the story: “He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’” What in the fundamental Christian worldview could accommodate the ethos that underlies this story? Does this story reflect a Judeo-Christian ethic?

Personal ethics versus grace

The concept that another has died for us and cleansed us of our sins; that we are now “saved” (forgiven) by an act of grace unrelated to personal behavior, is foreign to the entire Jewish worldview. One cannot be a Jew and believe in Jesus as one’s personal savior. Such a belief is contrary to everything the Jewish tradition represents. Salvation for the Jew is not a gift of God; it is a reward that is earned. This renders “Jews for Jesus” a philosophical contradiction in terms.

Subliminal and Subversive Attacks on Jewish Identity

Western society has inherited from its Christian roots a subliminal background music that implies the primitiveness of Judaism and remains essentially anti-Jewish. Innumerable negative images of Judaism that endanger Jewish identity have insinuated themselves into modern secular civilization. Examples of these are:

  1. “Talmudic thinking” as derogatory
  2. Jesus and the moneychangers as a legitimate purifying act in defiance of a degenerate and corrupt religious establishment
  3. Tribal Judaism versus catholic (universal) Christianity
  4. Legalistic Judaism versus Christian love

The inertia of these Christian views of Judaism continues in secular academic scholarship. Modern secular literature, history, and philosophy texts abound with such subtle pejoratives. They constitute cultural and psychological guerilla warfare against the poorly schooled modern Jew. They predispose him against his roots and a reuniting with these roots.

The famous historian Arnold Toynbee, relying on grotesque misrepresentations of Judaism inherited from Christianity, called the Jews a “fossil” whose historical relevance had ended with the appearance of Jesus and Christianity. This was presented as an objective historical analysis but was really a secular version of the Christian belief that with the advent of Christianity, Judaism ceased being a vigorous self-sufficient culture. Such intellectual fare has been fed to several generations of university trained Jews, alienating them from Jewish identity.

We Jews have been remiss in developing ways to combat these attacks on Jewish awareness, partly because combating them is like combating a false rumor. How do we assert our cultural integrity in repelling the missionary assault of some Christians without offending our Christian and post-Christian allies and weakening our political position? Israel’s biggest supporters in American civil society are the 70 million-strong Evangelical communities, the same communities that fund the various manifestations of the “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Jews”. This is a difficult strategic dilemma, but difficulty does not free us from our moral obligation to deal with it.

Talmudic Thinking versus New Testament Thinking

Talmudic hairsplitting is a recognized pejorative even in secular debate; signifying a tortured, artificial style of argumentation. The Jews call this process pilpul, from the Hebrew word for pepper, because it sharpens the mind. Yet, if we were to critically examine Christian teaching, we might conclude that New Testament thinking could replace Talmudic thinking to indicate tortured, twisted, artificial logic. As shown below, scores of Christian intellectuals and scholars have been documenting this for years. A future Jewish educational project might be to prepare popular handbooks showing how Christian scholarship has often misinterpreted the Old Testament.

This would obligate us to reevaluate our own attitudes toward concepts like pilpul, which is often used as a pejorative even in Jewish circles. Pilpul is designed to train the minds of practitioners never to accept face value and always to seek new ways of thinking. Its misuse by ignorant rabbis to confuse and control the unschooled has given it a bad name. In point of fact, pilpul anticipated today’s creative-thinking workshops, which train people to develop their lateral (associative) thinking by connecting and integrating concepts that appear unrelated. While pilpul’s intent is to sharpen the mind, New Testament argumentation intends to prove the truth of Christianity and its claim to cosmic exclusivity. It is not an exercise—it is a foundation stone.

Over the past 100 years of critical Christian scholarship, many Catholic and Protestant scholars have questioned the veracity and factualness of much New Testament argumentation. For a remarkable description of this phenomenon, read Jesus Son of Man by Rudolf Augstein, founder and publisher of the German magazine Der Spiegel. Mr. Augstein, a non-Jew, has conducted secondary research into the writings of Catholic and Protestant scholars regarding the veracity of traditional Christian dogma. He documents their discoveries, highlights their reticence to bring these discoveries to light and severely criticizes what he construes to be intellectual dishonesty. His work has great relevance for Jews who want to reevaluate their tradition as it has been filtered through Christian eyes.

Jesus and the Money Changers

In his first inaugural address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to driving the moneychangers from the Temple. He was using this phrase as a metaphor for the control that American business tycoons had over the temple of American democracy. The image was immediately accessible to all Americans who even had a passing acquaintance with the New Testament. It is one of the most striking images of the entire Christ story and is universally recognized as a purifying and revolutionary act.

It is also a story that reinforces images of the Jew as a moneygrubber willing to pollute his own holiest of holies for profit. The entire Jesus – moneychanger story is seen through the retroactive filter of a medieval Christian view of the Jews. Jews have trouble dealing with this story because, at first glance, it seems like a just and noble revolutionary act, and many Jews feel shame that this was part of Temple activity. This comes from seeing the story through Christian eyes. Seeing the story from both a Jewish and modern point of view might change one’s perspective.

First, we must relate to the Christian concept of the Temple as a quiet, dignified place of prayer and meditation being polluted by filthy commerce; a kind of cathedral, which people enter in quiet awe. In fact, the Temple was Oriental. Whoever has visited the Far East or seen documentaries will recognize the noise, tumult, crowds, people hawking religious artifacts, animals walking around, women nursing, and perhaps even people willing to change money. A similar atmosphere was to be found in medieval European cathedrals.

Jews made pilgrimage to the Temple three times a year. These pilgrimages provided much of the income of Jerusalem residents. Jews came from long distances, often with their families. They were dirty and tired and wanted nothing more than to rent quarters, eat a meal, and go to the ritual baths, not only for ritual purification in preparation for the sacrifice but also for refreshment. They often had currency not in use in Jerusalem and thus had to change money before paying for services. They preferred to use the moneychangers who had stalls within the Temple walls rather than outside because the Temple officials supervised them according to the commercial laws of Judaism and one could expect to be treated more fairly.

They stood in a moneychanger’s line, dirty, and hungry, with impatient wife and children waiting. The line moved slowly. Every transaction required argument and negotiation. Sometimes, one moneychanger had to ask a colleague about an unfamiliar currency. He had to weigh the currencies, check the purity of the gold or silver. Time bore heavily. Thousands of pilgrims waited in dozens of lines. Suddenly, a strange individual appeared and turned over the tables. Mayhem ensued. The moneychangers, legitimate businessmen performing a necessary service, saw their wealth rolling on the ground, the tired pilgrims and their families were dismayed, and all were furious.

In the meantime, the townspeople who had prepared every spare corner of room and courtyard to rent to the pilgrims stood and waited and wondered why so few had appeared to rent space. Suddenly, they saw furious groups of pilgrims heading to the outskirts of the city to sleep in the open. They were informed that somebody named Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Many pilgrims yelled that this was the last time they were coming on pilgrimage. The stomachs of the residents sank in despair; they saw their present and perhaps future incomes disappear. The story would surely spread throughout the Jewish world. The ire of the Temple officials, of the moneychangers, of the residents, and of the pilgrims was great.

How does this story look now? Would one want to use it metaphorically to justify an action? We Jews must examine such issues to clarify our essential differences with Christianity.

Jewish “Legalism,” Parochialism, & other Misrepresentations

Christianity, since its inception, has presented itself as a religion based on love, in opposition to the dry formalistic legalism of the Jews. The technical term for the extreme expression of this belief is “antinomianism”. The literal meaning of which is “against the law” and, as defined by the Random House Dictionary, “maintains that Christians are freed from the moral law by virtue of grace as set forth in the gospel.”

Mainstream Catholicism and Protestantism have resisted extreme conclusions regarding this radical interpretation of grace over works doctrine. But antinomians can justify their position by appealing to sources as authoritative and varied as Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther.

Antinomianism runs like a thread throughout Christian history. Even today, some fundamentalists claim that because they have already been saved they no longer have any fear of hell no matter what misdemeanors and sins they might commit in the future. This is not the dominant view, but its very existence in modern Christian discourse demonstrates the residual power of antinomianism.

Why, if antinomianism has such a rich Christian pedigree, is it so severely attacked by Christian churches and theologians? Because to live in human society human beings need laws to govern their behavior! Therefore, the early Church quickly began to create a body of canon law to govern the behavior of men while on earth. Later, Calvin wrote his authoritarian Institutes (which indirectly molded the mentality that enabled the Salem Witch Trials). Ironically, “antinomian” Christian law is often less tolerant and less loving than “legalistic” Jewish law, perhaps because in Christian law, loss of God’s grace, not sin against another human being, is the primary transgression (see Epistle to the Romans). Loss of God’s grace is much more terrifying for the Christian than crimes against men, no matter how horrible.

A useful joint project for Jews and Christians might be to compare canon law as well as the laws of other Christian denominations with Jewish law in terms of its tolerance and liberalism and compare the actual behavior of each community based on Christian love and Jewish law. A one-on-one comparison on many issues might dispel the myth of loving Christianity versus a dry, legalistic Judaism. Christians require the law just as much as Jews, and Jews are instructed to act with love just as much as Christians. Dispelling these historical stereotypes might benefit both traditions. It would certainly provide a sounder foundation for a healthier Christian-Jewish dialogue.

In regards to universal Christianity versus tribal Judaism, we might compare the Christian approach regarding Jesus’ monopoly power over the world to come—with the Jewish approach of the Seven Laws of Noah which is better geared to living a civilized life in a pluralistic democracy.

Future Rules of Jewish-Christian Relations—Derech Eretz

The relationship between Christians and Jews requires a new set of rules. We Jews must take the lead in setting them. Our principles must be firm, but our strategy and tactics must be informed with the principle of Derech Eretz—good manners. We have a dilemma. We cannot afford to offend our strongest supporters, yet we cannot avoid letting them know how much their proselytizing activities offend us when these are packaged in the “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Jews” packages. The majority of decent Christians will understand our position and limit these activities; for those who do not, only internal Jewish education will suffice.

We must not chastise the Christians for trying to convert us, as long as they do this openly and honestly and not under a Jewish guise. They do this with everyone, even other Christians. The late Pope had called for a Catholic counterattack against evangelical Christian inroads into traditional Catholic communities (especially in Latin America).

It is a Jewish responsibility to make Judaism stronger and more attractive by clarifying its basic principles. We must be proactive in publicizing differences between Christianity and Judaism. In a constitutional democracy that protects the citizen against religious coercion the success of missionary activity is dependent on Jewish ignorance. We are now paying the price for years of shallow and kitschy Fiddler-on-the-Roof Judaism, and the cultivation of colorful ethnicity. This must be replaced by uncompromising clarity.

We might create a Jewish organization to address the above issues. We might create a series of lectures, seminars and workshops to discuss differences between Judaism and Christianity using the books of Trude Weiss Rosmarin (Judaism and Christianity: the Difference), Abba Hillel Silver (Where Judaism Differed), and Rudolf Augstein (Jesus Son of Man). This would teach Jews about their own Judaism as well as specifically clarify ideological differences between various Jewish trends. It would also be more productive for instilling Jewish ambitions than distributing “modern” graphically attractive but intellectually dishonest translations of prayer books or sustaining the bar mitzvah factory of afternoon Hebrew schools.

An advanced series of lectures, seminars, and workshops might deal with Talmudic thinking versus New Testament thinking. Here, we would be tactically wise to depend largely on non-Jewish sources such as Augstein’s book. We might invite Christian thinkers to cosponsor seminars with this subject as its title.

Other activities would include books, booklets, mailings, and websites that relate specifically to issues mentioned in this chapter, as well as others. We could also cultivate university debates, and television and radio talk show appearances. We could have a response team of professionals and lay people that would insist that print and electronic media clarify their meaning when using phrases such as Talmudic thinking or “driving out the money changers” in a pejorative way. We might develop a series of cartoons, videos, and children’s books on these and other subjects. University students should have special projects that supply them with material and talking points when confronted with the subliminal anti-Jewish prejudices of Western culture.

All of this can be carried out in a spirit of cooperation, good manners, and good feelings with the Christian community. It must be accompanied by the fashioning of action-oriented projects that reflect our truly shared values as well as the long-term vital interests of both communities.


You can read  other insightful posts and articles at Tsvi Bisk’s site, The Strategic Futurist

tsvi bisk

Tsvi Bisk is an American­-Israeli futurist. He is the director of the Center for Strategic Futurist Thinking (www.futurist-thinking.co.il/) and contributing editor for strategic thinking for The Futurist magazine.

He is also the author of The Optimistic Jew: A Positive Vision for the Jewish People in the 21st Century.

Tsvi Bisk

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