Meet the New Paul, Same as the Old Paul: Michael Wychograd, Kendall Soulen, and the New Problem of Supersessionism

Article excerpt

I had the privilege of meeting both Kendall Soulen and Michael Wyschograd at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies in Baltimore. ICJS had gathered a group of Jewish and Christian (all from Presbyterian and Lutheran backgrounds) scholars, clergy, educators and lay people to participate in six study and dialogue sessions over the course of two years on the subject of" "The Scandal of Particularity." The aim of the series was to engage a variety of stakeholders in the future of Jewish-Christian relations by examining the question of how our different traditions conceive of their own particularity, and how expressions of particularity impact the way we understand our involvement in the public square of American political and social life and our relations with members of other faith traditions. Rather than limit interfaith dialogue by hoping to find some kind of "common ground" shared by Judaism and Christianity, the conference dared us to think that the differences between these two traditions might be more important than any similarities we might find, and that these supposed similarities might be superficial at best.

Soulen and Wyschograd could not have been a better pair to bring as guest scholars to the ICJS conference. This is partly because Wyschograd has been one of the leading Jewish participants in Jewish-Christian dialogue in the past forty years, and Soulen has been his most important Christian admirer and interpreter. More significantly, it is because of the way both Wyschograd and Soulen have dealt with the issue of particularity in their work on the theological relationship between Judaism and Christianity. In his seminal work, The Body of Faith, Wyschograd argued that the central theological concept of Judaism is God's election of Israel to be God's beloved people. While God demands that Israel observe the commandments and while certain beliefs about God's nature may be implicit in the Biblical record, the essence of divine election is not the commandments or any beliefs about God, but rather God's preferential and parental love of the carnal family of Israel, the flesh and blood decedents of Jacob.

One of the most refreshing aspects of Wyschograd's Jewish theology is his open acknowledgment that those aspects of Christian theology that Jews typically find most un-Jewish, like the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, actually have roots in Jewish ideas, such as God's presence in the people Israel. This willingness to reject simplistic dichotomies between Judaism and Christianity has greatly enriched interfaith dialogue, as it did for us at the conference. Indeed, Wyschograd's philosophical and theological work has always been concerned with the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and he acknowledges his debt to Christian thinkers, particularly Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, not only for his understanding of Christianity but also for his understanding of Judaism as a religion of carnal election.

Because of his serious and open-minded engagement with Christianity, Wyschograd has also been influential in both academic and theological circles for his novel interpretations of the epistles of the Apostle Paul. Paul is often viewed by Jewish critics as the father of supersessionism for supposedly rejecting the validity of the commandments of the Torah after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is this interpretation of Paul that formed the basis for the Church's claim that God has rejected the Jews for their rejection of Christ and made the Church the "new Israel," the inheritors of God's preferential love. And it is precisely this interpretation of Paul that Wyschograd challenges, suggesting instead that Paul not only maintains that the commandments have validity for Jews but also that Paul believes that Israel's covenant with God is never abrogated. Centuries of Christian theologians have, according to Wyschograd, been misreading Paul. This new reading, sometimes dubbed "the New Paul," undermines two millennia of theological rationales for Christian supersessionism. …