I did not discover the music of Jimi Hendrix until 1990, some 20 years after his death—not the first time I have arrived late to the scene. I did not discover a heated exchange between fellow Cornellian Ann Coulter and Donny Deutsche on his talk show on October 8, 2007, until more than four years later. Their mutual recriminations left neither a winner nor a loser; the tie reveals both the sorry state of the relationship between Christians and Jews, and of Christian understanding of Judaism and Jews. The latter is paradoxical and dismaying since Christianity evolved from Judaism, and Christians and Jews have co-existed for nearly two thousand years. So, at this time of year, some reflections on this strained relationship and continued misunderstandings, all of which began only a few years after the birth of the Jew Jesus, may not be amiss.
I am not going to referee the exchange between Coulter and Deutsche. Both give a bad account of themselves. Deutsche identifies Coulter’s remarks as anti-Semitic, but his response emphasizes his hurt feelings, which cannot address, much less rebut, her views. Coulter denies his charges, but is oddly incurious and seems indifferent why a Jew finds her remarks anti-Semitic. Between their inadequate responses, there is little to choose but much to consider. So I am going to examine the assumptions which underlie such exchanges and make them so often worse than unproductive.
In a post-Holocaustal world in which anti-Semitism is politically incorrect, honest discussion of anti-Semitism is difficult, especially between Christians and Jews. Most Christians, whether they know it or not, hold, to varying degrees, anti-Semitic beliefs; their religious education in home or church makes their acquisition almost unavoidable. In this climate of political correctness, anti-Semites are on the defensive; they resist their discovery as anti-Semites or deny their views as anti-Semitic. Jews are on the offensive; they have the high ground, have ages-old grievances, and, as we shall see, have solid facts and good arguments. So they are doubly aggrieved both by anti-Semitism and at Christians’ defensive denial. It is not surprising that Christians and Jews can rarely discuss anti-Semitic Christian beliefs which have rationalized persecutions over centuries and led to the horrors of the Holocaust, without descending to an acrimonious impasse.
I take two beliefs to be anti-Semitic. One, Christianity is superior to Judaism. Two, because Christians accept Christianity, and Jews accept Judaism, Christians are superior to Jews. Coulter accepts both beliefs, claims that Christians share them, yet denies that Christians or their beliefs are anti-Semitic. Her stance is clear and clearly anti-Semitic. Christians believe that Christianity is perfect because it completes what is incomplete in Judaism, and is thus superior to Judaism. They believe that “Christians consider themselves perfected Jews” and are thus superior to Jews. Because Christianity is superior to Judaism, Christians believe themselves superior to Jews. Christians “just want Jews to be perfected”—to Christians, an expression of their loving desire to remedy the imperfection of Jews, namely, their incomplete faith.
Coulter’s specific position is that the imperfection of incompleteness in Judaism is its failure to accept Jesus as the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New Testament. Coulter’s central misunderstandings about the relationship between the two faiths are commonplace Christian errors of three different kinds.
First, Christians mistakenly equate the sacred writings of Jews with some of the sacred writings of Christians. But Holy Scriptures and the Old Testament are not the same texts. First, Holy Scriptures has a three-fold division of texts: Torah, Prophets, and Writings; the Old Testament has no divisions. Second, Holy Scriptures has one order of books; the Old Testament has another, which follows the order in Torah, but re-orders and mixes books in Prophets and Writings.
Second, Christians mistakenly assume that the Old Testament anticipates the New Testament—an obviously untenable assumption. Most, if not all, of the books of Holy Scriptures were written and canonized long before a few, if any, of the books of the New Testament were written or canonized. Implications follow. One, Jews did not think, and cannot be imagined as thinking, of their sacred texts as anticipating some yet-unwritten sacred texts building upon them. Two, Jews have always regarded Holy Scriptures as the complete expression of the essentials of their faith; for them, it requires no sequel or old-new sequence.
Third, Christians mistakenly interpret Holy Scriptures in terms not of Hebraic cultural resources and linguistic meanings, but of Christian meanings, many reflecting Hellenic cultural and linguistic influences. For instance, Jews interpret “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as a law of just compensation; Christians, as a law of revenge. The critical—I would say “crucial,” but for the pun—example concerns the meaning of “messiah.” If the word in Holy Scriptures anticipates the word in the New Testament, it must either have the same meaning in both texts or be an extension of the earlier to the later meaning. But marked differences in meaning deny equivalence or a continuum of meaning. Whenever Isaiah, by some Christians called the “Fifth Gospel,” refers to a messiah, it refers to an earthly politico-religious leader like David; Hebraic culture contains nothing anticipating an eschatological figure like the risen Christ and thus lacks a launching pad of Hebraic meaning for the requisite linguistic trajectory. The landing zone is a Christian construction based on Hellenic meaning from Greek death-and-resurrection myth and religion.
Christians further use Holy Scriptures in other ways to serve their purposes. Even before Christian theologians began transforming Holy Scriptures into the Old Testament, the Gospel writers themselves manipulated the text of Holy Scriptures to serve missionary purposes. Christians can see the results by comparing the quotations following “you have heard it said” statements in the Gospels with the actual words in Holy Scriptures. Side-by-side comparisons show distortions of two kinds: kluges, which create a single statement from snippets from different places; and cuts, which omit words giving very different meanings in context.
The question is why all of this work to misrepresent Holy Scriptures. My answer is a simple one: the earliest Christians were already struggling with the signal fact that most Jews in the Holy Land and many in the Mediterranean diaspora refused to accept the Jew Jesus as the Messiah. How could Jews refuse to recognize one of their own and fail to follow his teachings and those of his apostles, also Jewish? How could Christians explain this refusal to gentiles (most of whom would not know Holy Scriptures, recognize its manipulation by Christian missionaries, and probably not care, but many of whom knew or lived near Jews)? The answer serviceable to Christians then and traditional since has been smears on the character of Jews as “a proud and stiff-necked people,” benighted or recalcitrant, and damned. Thus have Christians justified their repudiation of Judaism and its supersession by Christianity in the face of the continued allegiance of Jews to Judaism. This strategy not only has failed, but also has defeated itself because the survival of Jews and Judaism, despite centuries of Christian persuasion and persecution, creates some doubt about the cogency of Christianity, especially given the difficulties of some of its theological doctrines.
So Christians rarely respond with an open-minded consideration of Jewish beliefs and values which have secured this steadfast allegiance of Jews to their faith. Few Christians can imagine, much less admit, that Jews may have rejected Jesus for their good reasons. One, Jews valued the emotional comfort and moral guidance of their faith, one complete in itself and satisfying to its believers. In this respect and in respect of cultural inertia, they are no different from those of other faiths. Two, and more important, they rejected at least one of Jesus’ central principles because it contradicted a central principle of Judaism. His “resist not evil” contravenes a primal, paramount Jewish obligation to be righteous and do justly.
Instead, most Christians judge Judaism and Jews by the beliefs of Christianity and Christians—an inherently anti-Semitic approach which corrupts their judgment. The implicit thinking is that a comparison of religions implies a competition between them, which Christianity by its self-serving judgment and disparagement wins. (Coulter even speaks of Christianity as a “fast track” to God!) So they disparage Judaism, demean Jews, and disrespect a faith which has proven its self-sufficiency and a people who have survived despite millennia of Christian abuse.
The question is what purposes anti-Semitism serves. For a few Christians, by discrediting Judaism or denigrating Jews, anti-Semitism helps protect Christianity as a prestigious brand name, a merit badge of religious attainment or superiority. For many Christians, it seems a prop of faith made by a favorable comparison. But the need for a prop implies that Christianity cannot exist independent of, and relies on, Judaism; and the comparison, though made to show Christianity superior to Judaism, cannot show Christianity good in itself. For most, if not all, Christians, anti-Semitism betrays a lack of confidence because Christianity has failed to convert most of those who should be most convertible, Jews. Christians see the conversion of a Jew as a triumph of faith, a reassurance that they are right by this success, whether by persuasion or persecution.
Such responses are a great shame. So much of Christianity satisfies the axiological standards of all religions: the good, the beautiful, and the true. Yet Christianity corrupts itself by insisting that its truth be true not only morally and religiously, but also historically. For some Christians, for their faith to comfort them, it must provide them certainty or security. An example of the former is textual literalism, even in matters of history and science; of the latter, anti-Semitism. Under such conditions or in such circumstances, some Christians insist that faith—by definition, belief or trust in what is unknowable or open to doubt—be as certain and secure as knowledge. Those who convince themselves that their faith is a form of such knowledge have done what has been bad and ugly about Christianity in world history.
The difference between Judaism and Christianity on the uses of history in their faiths is instructive. Jews may be interested in whether historical truth underlies the story of the Exodus, but, if it were shown to be historically untrue, they would continue to celebrate Passover, think Moses a great lawgiver, and cleave to the Ten Commandments. (They would care less if the story of his birth proved false.) They would do so because historical facts are less important—indeed, may be unnecessary or even irrelevant—to the truth of the lessons of their laws, which comfort and guide them in their lives. Jews must have their laws, what they call “mitzvahs,” obligations which are, inextricably and simultaneously, blessings to have and discharge as moral and civilized people.
Christians may be interested in the truth of bodily resurrection, which many, but not all, believe is essential to faith. For those who believe it essential, the discovery that the Easter story was not true because of an indubitable discovery of Jesus’ remains would bring on a crisis of faith (and probably the same response to disproof of the nativity story). Better by far to think the Easter story a metaphor of religious transcendence by love over the world’s material and moral temptations to sin.
A minor but modern point illustrating this difference is different responses to the theory of evolution. For Jews, evolution is no threat to either story of creation in Genesis and a matter inconsequential to faith. However, for some Christians, it is a threat, is opposed and rejected for that reason, and, for a few, requires a fanatical insistence on the literal historical/scientific truth of creation and, indeed, of every word in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
For me, Christianity’s real creation story begins with the good and beautiful story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, the beginning of the life of one of the world’s great moral and religious figures. He creates another, though not entirely new, set of insights, true about a wise way to act well in this world and thereby to share in some part of God’s salvation with others who also act well in this world.
I return to Jimi Hendrix for words of wisdom appropriate at all times but particularly at Christmas: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”