Why Christianity Needs Judaism

By Neuhaus, Richard | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August 2001 | Go to article overview
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Why Christianity Needs Judaism


Neuhaus, Richard, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


In these pages there is frequent reference to "the Judeo-Christian tradition." The phrase is much more than the jargon of interreligious politesse or a piece of what some call the American "civil religion." We speak of a Judeo-Christian moral tradition, not of a Judeo-Christian religion. Yet the moral tradition presupposes common beliefs about God, covenant, history, and final promise. Here too, morality and religion cannot be neatly separated. Nor can personal belief and public decision making.

Both Christianity and Judaism are emphatically public. They are not private "spiritualities," to use the term so prevalent in our day. They have to do with public revelations making public truth claims. The giving of the "Ten Words" at Sinai was a public event, visible to anyone who was there, and is recorded in the public texts of the Torah, open to the examination of anyone who can read them. Similarly public is the life and mission of Jesus, and the history of the Church, beginning with the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and all this is recorded in the New Testament. Moreover, Judaism and Christianity are public in that each is attached to a people--a determinate, countable, flesh-and-blood people through time. There is no Judaism apart from Jews, nor Christianity apart from Christians.

In this respect,Judaism and Christianity are dramatically different from the "mystery religions" and various gnostic cults of both the ancient world and our own times. Back in the 1960s, some liberal Christian theologians promoted what they called "secular Christianity," and it caused a stir at the time. Few understood what they were getting at, and the media soon lost interest. But there is an important sense in which both Christianity and Judaism--what some prefer to call simply "biblical religion"--are undeniably secular, which is closely connected to their being public in character. They have to do with the saeculum, with the present age, with the real world; they do not float above the world or apart from the world in a sphere called "religion" or "the spiritual." Nor can they be contained within religion as defined by--in the words of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead--what a man does with his solitude.

Christians, more than Jews, are prone to forgetting this. Jews must always cope with the stubbornly resistant fact of the existence of the Jewish people. Christians can and do forget the historical embodiment of Christianity. This forgetfulness is the subject of Harold Bloom's 1992 essay, American Religion, an exaggerated but instructive description of Christian America as Emersonian Gnosticism. Christians forget who they are, and forget what Christianity is, when they forget Jews and Judaism.

Christianity is Jewish. Not simply as a matter of historical accident or ancient origins, but as a matter of its constituting beliefs and continuing existence. In the early twentieth century, the great Franz Rosenzweig, who struggled with becoming Christian before his reconversion to Judaism, went so far as to call Christianity "Judaism for the Gentiles." This should not sound strange to Christians who have attended to St. Paul's reflections on the relationship between Jew and Christian. The earliest Christians were Jews, while other Jews rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah. That rejection does not mean that God has broken His covenant with Abraham and his descendants. That covenant and that people remain "the root," to which the Gentiles are now joined. Paul writes to the Gentile Christians in Rome: "But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you" (Romans 11).

A critical figure in Jewish-Christian relations is Marcion, who died in A.D. 160. Although he was condemned by the Church as a heretic, many Christians of the second century nonetheless rallied to Marcion's teaching that Christianity is not only separated from but is antithetical to the root of Israel.

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