new wine for new wineskins

Shira Lander
Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary and University of Maryland

Daniel Lehmann

Beth Tfiloh Community High School


The Task

Our need to reconceptualize the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is born out of an American Jewish experience that differs greatly from those of previous generations. As American-born Jews who grew up in relatively small Jewish communities, our identities were forged in the caring presence of a Christian majority; the face and voice of our neighbor was not only Jewish but Christian. (We are referring here to our personal contacts and exclude those political figures who seek a "Christian America.") We have not experienced the trauma of overt antisemitism, the exclusion of quotas, nor barriers to economic prosperity.

Indeed, we have enjoyed a cultural parity that was firmly established in the decades following World War II, as documented in Will Herberg's Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955). The State of Israel was already an established reality that afforded us a certain sense of security as our Jewish identity developed. Building on a strong foundation of Jewish life and learning, we were able to share our love of Judaism with our Christian friends as they opened their religious world to us. An environment of mutual appreciation allowed us to explore the world of Christianity without fear of weakening our particular religious commitments.

Our awareness of international events and our view of the world as a global village have made us keenly aware of our living out our Judaism in the midst of many "others." The self-consciously multicultural society which has nurtured our self-understanding has convinced us that we must recognize and include the other; our very experience of community embraces a variety of others. We never encountered isolationism or radical opposition. Thus, our life as Jews is lived out as a conversation not only within the diversity of our own tradition, past and present, but with a wide range of other religious cultures. And we have been enriched and empowered by this encounter.

Given this matrix of our identity, what is at stake in our understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is the formation of Jewish identity itself. A Jewish identity that is melded in the cauldron of isolation will not survive in a democratic climate with a free-market economy of ideas and ideologies. Furthermore, a competitive stance engenders a destructive factionalism--one that pits adherents of one religion over and against another, which contributes to the deepest social ills that threaten to unravel the fabric of society. Religion can no longer afford to contribute to the problems which destroy society and threaten our existence. It must become part of the solution, offering a new vision in which wholeness for some to the exclusion of others is not acceptable. If Judaism takes its charge seriously, letaqqn ôlam bemalkût šadday (to repair the world in the context of God's sovereignty – a phrase from the third paragraph of the traditional alênû prayer which begins the conclusion of the morning and evening service), it must offer models that enable Jews to enter into partnership with others who make different religious claims about this same God, Shaddai. According to Irving Greenberg, such a partnership is

the unfinished agenda of the Jewish-Christian dialogue...the recognition of the profound interrelationship between both. Each faith community experiencing the love of God and the chosenness of God was tempted into saying: I am the only one chosen. There was a human failure to see that there is enough love; in God to choose again and again and again. . . . Humans are called in this generation to renew the covenant – a renewal which will demand openness to each other, learning from each other, and a respect for the distinctiveness of the ongoing validity of each other. Such openness puts no religious claim beyond possibility but places the completion of total redemption at the center of the agenda (1984, 22).

This tîqqûn is not limited to political agendas, but includes a broader, existential healing of the world. Thus, coalitions whose aim is to advance particular social reforms but who do not attempt to understand each other’s religious commitments do not achieve this goal. The challenge is not simply to recognize oneself in the face of the other, or "to love thy neighbor as thyself," but rather to understand the faith of the other in his or her absolute otherness, or alterity, and respond to the face of God which that other reveals to us (Levinas 1994, 150).

One possible model emerges when we interpret Joseph B. Soloveitchik's "lonely man of faith" as the Jewish community, rather than as the Jew him or herself:

Since loneliness reflects the very core of the "I" experience, and it is not an accidental modus, no accidental activity or achievement – such as belonging to a natural work community and achieving cooperative success – can reclaim Adam the Second from this state. Therefore I repeat Adam the Second must quest for a different kind of community. The companionship that Adam the Second is is not to be found in the depersonalized regimentation of the army, in the automatic coordination of the assembly line, or in the activity of the institutionalized, soul-less political community. His quest is for a new kind of fellowship, which one finds in the existential community. There, not only hands are joined, but experiences as well: There, one hears not only the rhythmic sound of the production line, but also the rhythmic beat of hearts starved for existential companionship and all-embracing sympathy, and experiencing the grandeur of the faith commitment: there, one lonely soul finds another soul, tormented by loneliness and solitude, yet unqualifiedly committed (1992, 41-42).

If we understand the lonely person of faith to be the Jewish community, an I-Thou relationship between Jews and Christians is an existential imperative. The motivation bringing us together to be one another’s companions is nothing less than a desire for God. (Jews often participate in dialogue for other, more self-interested, reasons, viz. to eradicate misunderstandings of Jews and Judaism which feed antisemitism, to quell missionary activity, and to rally support for Israel and other political causes). As religious Jews in a secularized world hostile to God's presence we experience a loneliness that compels us to seek a broader community of faith with others who share that sense of loneliness.

What impels us to approach one another? A desire for healing. We come to one another burdened by the suffering caused by the errors of previous generations, knowing that each is in pain:

...[This] is a community of commitments born in distress and defeat and comprises three participants: "I, Thou, and He," the He in whom all being is rooted and in whom everything finds its rehabilitation and, consequently, redemption. . . Adam the second was introduced to Eve by God, who summoned Adam to join Eve in an existential community molded by sacrificial action and suffering, and who Himself became a partner in this community (Soloveitchik 1992, 43-44).

Thus it is only as partners that we can attempt to understand God's being in the world and jointly seek a path to existential redemption.


The Obstacles

The first major obstacle to acceptance of this new model is the oppositional paradigm of Jewish history that informs Jewish self-definition, as evident in works like A. H. Silver’s Where Judaism Differed (1956/1987) and T. Weiss-Rosmarin’s Judaism and Christianity: The Differences (1943/1978). If Yosef Yerushalmi is correct in his assertion that modern Jewish memory is dependent on history rather than sacred text, Jewish identity is dependent on the shifting paradigm of Judaism's relationship to non-Jews (1989, 86). Even when historians use self-referential rubrics for the periodization of history (e.g., "the Biblical Age"), they cannot avoid reference to others who are not Jewish in their discussions (Selzer 1980, 112).

Jewish history characterizes opposing cultures variously as "hostile," "tolerant," or even "benevolent," where the Jewish people is either "resisting," "accommodating," or "assimilating." David Lochhead has aptly identified the historical relationship between Jews and Christians as one of either "isolation," "hostility," or "competition" (1988). The critique, launched initially by Salo Baron, that scholars had tended toward a "lachrymose theory" of Jewish history (1928, 526) may reveal a simple truth: Jews cannot describe our history without making reference to "others" because the very core of Jewish identity rests on the theological premise that "divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history" (Yerushalmi 1989, 89). Given God’s universal sovereignty, any accounting of ourselves must therefore include our encounter with God’s other children.

Despite the attempt to reconstruct Jewish memory in objective, historical terms, religious prototypes intervene. Jews are still, after all, telling our story. These prototypes are represented at their extremes by two religious paradigms: the Exodus narrative and the story of Esther. The Exodus portrays Egypt, the host culture, as benevolent-turned-hostile culture. Israel must become independent from its host or perish. Whether this independence is achieved through fleeing, expulsion, or rebellion, the scenario is repeated in historians' views of the Assyrian Conquest, the Babylonian conquest, the Maccabean Revolt, Roman Imperialism, the Crusades, the Spanish Expulsion, the succession of German and French expulsions, forced conversions, sporadic pogroms and massacres, even the Shoah.

The Esther paradigm, manipulating the host culture to make it work for the Jews' benefit, is the other extreme. Persia's benevolence provides an opportunity to counter the anti-Jewish elements and remain there in safety. The host culture is still perceived in terms oppositional to the minority Jewish community, yet the opposition has a positive tone. This model applies to the moments of peace that the Jewish community experiences in the interim between times of hardship or status quo: Solomon's reign, the Hasmonean Period, the Byzantine Period, the Golden Age of Spain, eleventh-century France, sixteenth-century Poland, and in most of the history of the United States. Other periods of history are simply times of tolerance, when mighty forces were too preoccupied with their own affairs to pay attention to the meager number of Jews in their midst.

An unfortunate consequence for North American Jews living in a society that relates history from the perspective of western culture is that we tend subconsciously to read the second half of our own history within this culture back onto the first millennium of the Jewish experience. When this retrospective eisegesis is coupled with a formation process for creating Jewish identity that is fundamentally oppositional, the natural result for Jews living with Christian "others" is that the "Christian" becomes the archetypal non-Jew, the prototypical oppressor to be feared.

When, for instance, first graders in a Baltimore Jewish day school were asked to identify the religion of Haman, they instinctively responded "Christian." Clearly, Jewish educators will need to reexamine the role of this oppositional paradigm in creating Jewish identity and explore such questions as:

A second major obstacle is corollary to the first, namely, Jews identifying as victims. As Jews read our history through the experience of the Shoah and modern antisemitism, we tend to project our identity as oppressed victims into the past and the present. Despite Jewish prosperity, Jewish military power, and the existence of the State of Israel (which itself can appeal to a collective victimized identification to justify certain government policies), Jews still see ourselves as victims. This victimhood leads some Jews to overcompensate for this "fact," resulting in a misconstrual of chosenness as xenophobic superiority (Bershtel and Graubard 1992, 113). Such a process is evident in terms like goyishe kopf, a non-Jewish brain, which is obviously inferior to a Jewish one.

An identity as victim functions in several ways. First, it establishes moral purity. The either/or logic reasons that as long as we are victims we cannot be oppressors. But this does not prove to be true – victims can and often do oppress, for they repeat what they know, namely, the system of oppression.

Second, victimhood vindicates Judaism’s theological claim to be the true Israel. As the Bible demonstrates time and again, the most beloved of God is the one who suffers the ysurîn šel É ahabah (trials of love). Because human suffering is a necessary theological condition for Divine chosenness and redemption, suffering is paradoxically linked to Jewish immortality. Thus victimhood eviscerates Augustine’s understanding of Jews as a negative witness to the truth of Christianity – because it is the sufferers who are truly God’s people, not the mighty.

Third, if Jews are victims, then we are the suffering servant; we are "Christ" on the cross, as Israel Zangwill has phrased it (Roth 1932, 136). The continuous litany of our persecution and suffering undermines the notion of Jesus’ suffering on the cross "once and for all," as a prominent Jewish leader has said of the Holocaust’s six million crucifixions. Perhaps even the willingness of Jews to discuss the Jewishness of Jesus betrays a hope that Christians will acknowledge their own sinfulness in bringing about not only Jesus’ crucifixion but the "crucifixion of the Jews" which has been going on ever since (Littell 1986; Greenberg1984, 11-12). By telling and retelling our stories of suffering, Jews try to keep the wounds of suffering open until there is an overwhelming crusade on the part of Christians – not just a token gesture or small movement – toward healing the wound. How can anyone speak of redemption or salvation while the wound still festers and Jews still hurt?

Ironically, alongside of this oppositional paradigm, many Jews make the unspoken claim that our rich and varied culture developed in a cultural vacuum, untainted by outside influences. The notion of self-contained, internal revelation carries the theological perception of our exclusive relationship with God to its logical conclusion. The Torah contains all truth, or put alternatively, if God had wanted us to know, it would be in (our interpretation of the) Torah. This isolationist stance permits Jews to conclude we have nothing to learn from Christians even before the dialogical encounter, since we have never had any need to learn from others in the past.

A lamentable manifestation of Jewish isolationism is the rejection of any ideas simply because they belong to the "other." If Christians believe it, we as Jews do not. Such contrast has traditionally focused on the issue of Christians as idolaters vs. monotheists (Ellenson 1989, 143-159). These traditional Jewish assessments of the Trinity do not accept Christianity’s own monotheistic claim, nor do they describe a theology Christians could recognize as their own. There have been many attempts to understand Christianity within already existing Jewish theological constructs. While these efforts are laudable, they do not meet our criterion of self-recognition (Sherwin 1994, 255-267). Michael Kogan is correct in rejecting the double standard of the Noahide laws and wrestling with Christian notions of incarnation, resurrection, and vicarious atonement, yet he reveals a somewhat isolationist attitude when he writes, "...I hasten to stress that I envision absolutely no consequences for the faith and practice of Judaism from the approach to Christian claims that I will suggest" (1995, 101). Alternatively, Eugene Borowitz presents a refreshing model that breaks with this pattern in Contemporary Christologies (1979).

Despite these significant innovations, a negative attitude of oppositionalism still pervades, even in rabbinic seminaries. A prominent official of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion once related, "We must not use the word ‘spirit’ in our liturgy because ‘spirit’ is a Christian word." Even if a particular belief exists in our own tradition, the "not Christian" aspect of our self-definition forces us to silence these voices or to claim they are not really Jewish.

In addition to issues of identity formation, we face a problem of language. The familial metaphors for Jewish-Christian relations are inadequate. If Judaism is Christianity’s parent, the newness of rabbinic Judaism is unacknowledged and Judaism wins the continuity contest, surreptitiously emerging as the first, authentic people of Israel. On the other hand, the natural order is for parents to predecease their children, and Jews will not be party to writing our own epitaph. The image of Judaism as Christianity’s older brother carries an unacceptable association with younger supplanting older in the Genesis narratives of contra primogeniture. Even if Judaism and Christianity are twins emerging in the birth pangs of the first century, one will inevitably stake claims to the birthright, as the Jacob and Esau story makes clear. These images are deficient when we realize that neither one "deserves" it over and against the other, whether by grace or merit – a tension which the biblical story cannot abide.

The sibling metaphor, if reinterpreted, might overcome the competitive triumphalism which inheres in current usage. Two mature siblings in a healthy family structure should be capable of recognizing the unique love relationship that each has with his/her parents. Parents love each child completely, but differently. Each relationship is particular, and yet the children understand the common bonds that link them as a family to their parents. The siblings can also appreciate the special qualities that emerge out of each particular parent-child relationship. They can learn about each other, their parents, and themselves by witnessing the unique elements that characterize other relationships in the family. Assuming that the children have a strong sense of self-esteem and have been nourished by loving and caring parents (which may be the crux of our problem), it is conceivable that the love each receives from the parents is not diminished by the love shared with other siblings. Equal but different love is truly possible, as parents of more than one child can attest.

God, whose love knows no bounds, is certainly capable of entering into a unique relationship with each and every child that does not diminish the sacredness and uniqueness of the other. The problem is not in God but in our own failure to understand that God loves different peoples equally. Learning how to be mature and healthy siblings celebrates the unique ways in which love is bestowed from above. Perhaps, as in Genesis, this new understanding can only come after sibling rivalries degenerate into fratricide, exclusion, or abandonment. But after the Shoah, are we not ready to reconceptualize our broader family through a more loving paradigm? Can we afford not to?

New Wine, New Skins

In conclusion, reconceptualizing the relationship between Judaism and Christianity requires attention to how Jewish identity itself is constructed and perpetuated. In rejecting the oppositional paradigms of isolation, hostility, and competition, we propose an existential partnership born out of a profound yearning for God’s presence. For Jews, this will mean living in deeper tension between qedušah, being apart from, and bemalkût šadday, being a part of, the larger cultural context in which we are situated.

This reconceptualization will also demand new metaphors. The old metaphors fail to convey the sense of partnership we believe is fundamental to our reconceptualization. These new metaphors must reflect our experience of cooperation and engagement; they cannot require compromising individual integrity. They should portray an openness to new insights which call us into being truer to ourselves as either Jews or Christians, and they should reveal Jews and Christians holding one another accountable before God. In order to be truly valid, these metaphors must also be ones in which both Jews and Christians can recognize themselves.

These new metaphors will inevitably emerge as more Jews and Christians are devoted to this process of engagement. Our experience in learning together with Christians has enriched our self-understanding. It has heightened our awareness of certain religious dynamics within our own faith community that we would not otherwise be privileged to notice. It has supplied corrective mechanisms for confronting problematics within our own tradition. It has enabled us to appreciate God’s gift in diverse ways of loving. Through the bonds of community and fellowship, we have been able to trust, to take risks in presence of "other" not possible within our own communities. In articulating certain understandings of our own faith and practice in language that was not private, we embarked on different kinds of exploration that permitted fresh insights and new understanding. We are hopeful that as others join together on the journey, new bridges will lead to new possibilities.

Rabbi Shira Lander received her rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and currently teaches at The Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary and University and at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She participated in the Colloquium as a member of the staff of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore.

Colloquium participant Rabbi Daniel Lehmann received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He currently serves as the Principal of the Beth Tfiloh Community High School in Pikesville, Maryland, where he and Rabbi Lander teach a seminar on Christianity.


List of Works Consulted

 Baron, Salo. 1928. Ghetto and emancipation. The menorah journal 14/6. 515-526.

Bershtel, Sara and Graubard, Allen. 1992. Saving remnants: Feeling Jewish in America. New York: The Free Press.

Borowitz, Eugene. 1979. Contemporary Christologies: A Jewish response. New York: Paulist Press.

Ellenson, David. 1989. Tradition in transition: Orthodoxy, halakhah, and the boundaries of modern Jewish identity. New York: University Press.

Greenberg, Irving. 1984. The relationship of Judaism and Christianity: Toward a new organic model. Quarterly review 4/4. 4-22.

Herberg, Will. 1955. Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An essay in American religious Sociology. New York: Doubleday.

Kogan, Michael S. 1995. Toward a Jewish theology of Christianity. Journal of ecumenical studies 32/1. 89-106, 152.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1994. Beyond the verse: Talmudic readings and lectures. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Littell, Franklin H. 1986. The crucifixion of the Jews. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.

Roth, Cecil. 1932. The most persecuted people? The menorah journal 20/2. 136-147.

Selzer, Robert M. 1980. Jewish people, Jewish thought: The Jewish experience in history. New York: MacMillan.

Sherwin, Byron. 1994. `Who do you say that I am?’ (Mark 8.29): A new Jewish view of Jesus. Journal of Ecumenical Studies 31/3-4. 255-267.

Silver, Abba Hillel. 1956/1987. Where Judaism differed. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.

Soloveitchik, Joseph B. 1992. Lonely man of faith. New York: Doubleday.

Weiss-Rosmarin, Trude. 1943/1978. Judaism and Christianity: The differences. New York: Jonathan David.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. 1989. Zakhor: Jewish history and Jewish memory. New York: Schocken Books.