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    A Tenuous Tradition: Fear and Faith in Jewish-Christian Dialogue

    January 23rd, 2018

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 23 January 2018.

    Christianity and Judaism are outcomes of the Hebrew Bible but they each interpret the Bible differently. Not only does their exegesis differ, but even their emphases and ethics.

    Despite the popular belief, the so-called “Judeo-Christian tradition” is not a shared philosophy and probably doesn’t really exist. But the phrase does have its usefulness in implying that there is a shared moral answerability to God, whichever the way in which God and answerability are defined.

    The differences do not mean that the adherents of the two faiths are justified in fearing or fighting one another. The commonalities, on the other hand, do not justify pretending that the differences do not exist.

    For many centuries Jews and Christians were mutually hostile, and Christians in particular were physically aggressive towards Jews. Now, thank God, the climate has changed, and denigration and destruction have given way to dialogue.

    Nonetheless some Christians reject the principle of dialogue with Jews because they feel all Jews should become Christians. They probably don’t realise that God made all of us and whatever our individual faith commitment we should have space and respect for everyone and their conscience.

    Some Jews also reject dialogue with Christians, not because they expect the Christians to convert to Judaism but for a range of other reasons. They say that Jews:
    • have suffered so much from Christians that all they want is to be left alone;
    • harbour the fear that Christian friendship has a price tag and that Christians still want to convert them;
    • suspect that Christianity has no real respect for Judaism;
    • worry that Christians do not realise that Jesus was a Jew who probably had no intention of forming another religion;
    • see faith as an intensely personal spiritual journey that can’t be imposed on others;
    • have a unique culture and history which outsiders don’t share;
    • are a people, not just one of many denominations;
    • respect the conscience of all faiths and see no need for anyone to apologise for being themselves;
    • are more concerned to strengthen Judaism than to investigate other religions; and
    • prefer shared practical work for ethical and social causes to theological and philosophical ruminating.

    Valid points, but from a Jewish point of view they all mean that we more or less have to isolate ourselves from others.

    But there is a dilemma. In a multichrome, multicultural world, none of us can really lock ourselves away. There are many religions, many cultures, many ways of thinking with which we have to share the planet. Without necessarily agreeing with them, we need to learn to be on speaking terms with all types of philosophies, including those that are non-theistic. We must engage with all who stand for spiritual and ethical principles, starting with Christians, many of whom deserve credit for genuinely trying to overcome the heritage of historic hostility.

    Yet there is an important limitation in the words of Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik:

    We are opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis-a-vis ‘similar’ aspects of another faith community. We believe in and are committed to our Maker in a specific manner and we will not question, defend, offer apologies, analyse or rationalise our faith in dialogues centered about these ‘private’ topics which express our personal relationship to the God of Israel … Jews and Christians employ different categories and move with incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.

    The reference to public events warns us that formal Councils of Christians and Jews can be over-genteel and be tempted into simplistic, superficial displays of equivalence. Many years of involvement in such programs on three continents have made me feel immensely dissatisfied. Sharing tea and sandwiches is very friendly and pleasant, but when a Jewish speaker lists his tenets and a Christian lists theirs and each seems to be inviting an audience vote, it is all highly entertaining but unbelievably superficial.

    There is no necessary equivalence in why a Jew follows Judaism and why a Christian follows Christianity. It is not just a question of why either is used to and feels comfortable with a particular faith discipline and tradition. There are sometimes personal psychological problems that issue in private faith states that have little or nothing to do with a theological tradition or structure.

    Faith states can be separated from theological traditions but this probably happens rarely. So there an additional question of whether theological mindsets can be separated from social and ethical co-operation, since the latter implies and imports theoretical principles and historical experience. It must be said, too, that whatever the level of engagement, there is a personal dimension which is immensely positive: we get to know each other and even become adopted members of one another’s families. We see how our backgrounds and customs mould our thinking and way of life, though we will probably never be able to get inside each other’s head

    A new element is the rather robust encounter with resurgent Islam, which is still a puzzle to both the other monotheistic religions. Though Christianity and Judaism have entered and come to grips with modernity, we suspect that this is yet to happen with Islam. Christianity and Judaism have painfully reached the awareness that all genuinely held belief systems are legitimate and worthy of respect. Which raises the question of whether and how far faiths can change course in their policies and practices, leave each other alone, and be guided by human compassion and not religious sloganism.

    The number of adherents that any one faith group has is not the point, despite the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) that thinks that the more numerous faith communities are in some sense more authentic while the smaller ones are given short shrift. When planning the five-yearly censuses the ABS has a habit of tucking Judaism away in a corner because its numbers are far lower than those of the Anglicans, Roman Catholics and other Christians, nor does the ABS recognise that the quality of – say- a Buddhist’s commitment is quite different from that of a perfunctory Anglican. I tried to argue this out with the ABS for many years, but they found it difficult to see my point.

    If we ask what the dialogue (whatever its nature) has achieved in its short life can we really say, “How far we have got!”? Must we sadly admit, “How little we have progressed!”?

    The Midrash, the collection of Jewish exegetical narratives and tales, tells about a man who reaches a crossroad to find his way blocked by a huge rock. He tries to push it out of the way but lacks the strength. He could of course sit down and weep, but what use is that? What does he do? He begins chipping away at the edges, and little by little the rock gets smaller.


    new-testament-people-a-rabbis-notesNEW TESTAMENT PEOPLE: A RABBI’S NOTES

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

    The softcover and ebook editions are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online.

    Why was the slavery necessary?

    January 21st, 2018

    The Israelites in Egypt cried long and hard because of their pain.

    God heard their cry and the people were eventually rescued, crossed the Red Sea, and settled in the Promised Land.

    Had there been no bondage there would have been no redemption: had there been no redemption there wouldn’t have been a Pesach. Without Pesach, we would have had no Seder, no matzah, no four cups of wine.

    We realise this, but we still ask: “Why was the bondage necessary? Did God really need us to suffer so much and to cry so long?”

    It’s the Holocaust question: Why did bad things happen to good people?

    The superficial answer is that it tested our character, but shouldn’t we say with “Fiddler on the Roof”, “God, so we’re the Chosen People – but can’t You choose someone else for a change?!”

    The answer is that we really don’t know the answer, or at least not yet. Maybe that’s one of the lingering questions that Elijah the Prophet will answer for us. In the meantime, as Rav Soloveitchik tells us, though we don’t have an answer, we have to have a response.

    We don’t know why we suffer, but we have to have the courage to keep going, build a future and rise above the pain.

    Just about right – Bo

    January 14th, 2018

    The Israelites are groaning under the pressure of enslavement. Ten plagues have to hit Egypt before the slavery can come to an end.

    The tenth plague is the slaying of the first-born. Moses announces when it will take place – “about midnight” (Ex. 11:4).

    We wonder why he isn’t more precise. “About midnight”? Why not “at midnight”? Indeed, why “midnight” at all – why not some other time, morning, afternoon or evening?

    The word “about” might indicate that human calculations of time are rarely 100% and the Egyptian magicians, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe points out, might think they knew exactly when midnight had arrived and if the plague did not befall Egypt at davka that moment they might mock the Israelite God when all that had happened was that they were slightly off in their calculations.

    When the Torah writes that at the time of Creation God worked on the seventh day (Gen. 2:2), it is reporting a human perception; God Himself does not make a mistake and knows precisely when the sixth day ends and the seventh commences.

    There is a deeper question – why link the tenth plague to midnight at all?

    It may be something to do with the nature of the plague. The slaying of the first-born was not just to show that Egypt was not as invincible as might have been thought, but to mark the beginning of a new era, the recognition that HaShem is in charge of the world and the old age was over.

    In that sense the right time for the plague was on the cusp of the two eras, the Pharaoh era and the HaShem era: “Thus shall you know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 7:17).

    Defining darkness – Bo

    January 14th, 2018

    The plague of darkness, Doré’s English Bible, 1866

    How do we define darkness – scientifically or ethically?

    The Torah takes the second option: “There was thick darkness… and no-one could see his fellow” (Ex. 10:22-23).

    Even if a person can physically see, they can be smitten with metaphorical darkness when they look at or through a person and can’t see that they are a fellow human being.

    Not everyone is lovable, not everyone is pleasant, not everyone is very brotherly or sisterly. But when the Torah tells you to love your fellow (Lev. 19:18) it doesn’t qualify the command by saying, “Provided they are nice to you, provided they have a smile, provided they make themselves friendly”.

    The Yiddish saying about Jews is that every Jewish person has a pintele Yid, a drop of Jewishness, even if it doesn’t seem to be so. Broaden the saying and apply it to every human being. They all have a pintele Mensch, a drop of humanity.

    The beginning of Mishnah B’rachot says that you know it is dawn when you can see the face of a fellow human being.

    “See” is both a physical and a metaphorical concept.

    Fallen rabbis – Ask the Rabbi

    January 14th, 2018

    Q. If a rabbi has lost his credibility do we still follow his rulings?

    A. Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University recently gave a serious analysis of the problem, concluding by basically saying “No”.

    He pointed out that Malachi 2:7 as expounded by the sages requires a rabbi to be beyond reproach and be the personification of Torah values. If he has been shown to have violated rabbinic standards there is no obligation to follow his rulings unless (which is difficult to ascertain) they pre-dated his wrongful conduct.

    The example is the teachings of Elisha ben Abuya who turned away from Torah observance and belief and became a heretic known as Acher, “the other person”.

    What a tragedy it is if such problems arise.