‘Tis the Season (Part Two)

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A few days ago, I threw out the idea that the adoption of divestment motions by mainline churches is a greater threat to Jewish interests than PETA’s challenge to shechita. The former introduces the Big Lie of Israel as an apartheid state to mainstream America; the latter is the work of folks most Americans see as kooks.

I stand by my assessment, although the cheering in the background is barely audible.

My posting told a story of a Presbyterian hierarchy so entrenched in their contempt for Israel, that they have moved beyond the original motion, compounding mendacity with borderline Jew-baiting. I promised to talk about another side to the story. Some of it has already been anticipated by several bloggers and commenters in the last few days.

I have invested much time in the last year getting to know different Christian denominations. It would not be inaccurate to say that almost all denominations have, one way or another, so significantly modified their stance towards Jews, that we must think of modifying our approach to them. (Those who are not Hebrew-text-challenged should check out the comments of the Netziv to the meeting of Esav and Yaakov, where our Sages tell us, according to one opinion, that Esav at that moment was moved to embrace Yaakov as a beloved brother. The Netziv tells us that this is a paradigm for the future. There will be times when the world of Esav will reach out to us in brotherly embrace, at which time we will reciprocate that embrace and acceptance.)

I am not speaking about evangelicals alone. I agree with Jeff Ballabon that there is a strong component of American culture in some of the change, but there have also been changes at the core of churches with international scope. Here is a sampler of some of my own experiences within the last year.

  • After the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church passed its divestment resolution, a firestorm broke out which has intensified over time. Five presbyteries – most of them in the Deep South! – sent strong messages back to headquarters calling for a new meeting so that the resolution could be undone. Powerful individual pastors have called for withholding funds from the parent church to punish it for the move.
  • The split within this church included both conservative elements (which take more seriously the Biblical covenant with the Jews) as well as liberal elements, which simply called the move unbalanced and unfair.
  • This is not restricted to Presbyterians alone. There are groups within the other mainline ( = liberal) churches which are also friendly to Jews and Israel. One such umbrella group, the Institute on Religion and Democracy recently issued a scathing report, blasting the mainline churches for their obsession with only two global wrongdoers: the United States and Israel. While this points to the liberal nonsense worshipped in some of these churches, it also tells us about the existence of people of good will within those same denominations.
  • I receive calls quite frequently from Christian clergy who, struggling with the moral issues of our times, want to know what traditional Jews feel about these issues. They are well aware of the strength and depth of our tradition.
    One caller last year sheepishly asked if I had any good material that could help him with his Christmas homily. (That brought back memories of the time NY Cardinal O’Connor began his Christmas address with a story about the Berditchiver Rebbe.)
  • A fellow called me from Germany, speaking on behalf of a group of Lutheran nuns. (Didn’t think Lutherans had nuns, did you?) Their order spends its time studying the Holocaust – and the role Christianity played in bringing it about. They wanted to know about Jewish attitudes towards forgiveness – and whether there was any way they could possibly be forgiven for their indirect complicity (all were born after the Holocaust) with it.
  • A Franciscan friend told me that his father was an avowed antisemite – but the nuns in the parochial school he attended spoke strongly and convincingly against bias towards Jews. When a parishioner of his suggested after his sermon one Sunday that she knew which kind of people were really the cause of America’s problems and then walked away, he chased after her, yelling to her that she was a sinner, and had better come back to confessional to repent!
  • A South Korean Presbyterian minister runs the Shma Institute – showing other ministers what gems were preserved by Orthodox Jews, and how they should never have been rejected by the Church.
  • Minding my own business at the entrance to the San Diego Zoo, a local minister approached with one of his lay leaders and told my family about his church’s rejection of the Trinity, and admiration for the Jews.
  • A member of a Protestant denomination casually told me that his church has established a nationwide network of safe houses, so that if the country ever turns against the Jews, they will have homes that will harbor and protect them.
  • Is there a common thread to these events? I believe that there is one, and it has three strands.

  • Many churches have changed the “official” way they regard Jews. They have modified their catechisms and their instructional materials to not only reject collective guilt for the crucifixion, but to assert the religious and national significance of the Jewish people.
  • As Rabbi Daniel Lapin points out in the current issue of Jewish Action, many churches still wish to convert us. What is significant is that they have no intention of using violence and coercion, as they did for hundreds of years. They can only hope to win us over (G-d forbid!) through persuasion. This is a sea-change from the past, and enormously reassuring to Jews concerned about potential Christian violence against themselves.
  • Most important in my opinion is something very, very few Jews realize. Most of us see ourselves as a small embattled minority within a sea of Christianity. We don’t realize that Christians see themselves as an embattled minority! Regardless of their numbers, they see their influence swamped by a nt culture which is dismissive of religion, anti-Christian, and pro-licentiousness. They believe that America cannot thrive without staying committed to spiritual goals. Many, many people are ready to consider observant Jews allies against the common enemy of G-dlessness, partners in bringing G-d back to America.
  • Should we continue to be cautious, as Jonathan Rosenblum urges? Of course. Habits of two millennia are not undone in a few decades. Retrograde elements in various churches still harbor plenty of old-fashioned antisemites. (This from friends in those churches!) But it would be a mistake to squander the opportunity we have to shore up good will and acceptance that is often found in our Christian neighbors not in spite of their Christianity, but because of it.

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    15 Responses

    1. Hanan says:

      There has been a lot of talk regarding the changing attitudes of Christians towards Jews. Some that have not heard of the Paperclips project might want to take a look at the site below. Miramax is planing to release a documentary sometime this year. I was extremely moved when I saw it.( they had an advanced copy at my work)
      http://www.marionschools.org/holocaust/

    2. Jeff Ballabon says:

      The change you made doesn’t alter the wrongness of your statement at all. All evidence points to the fact that most conservative Christian support stems from things other than the end-of-days scenario you are suggesting and much more, in fact, from good old decency and morality. The more influential biblical influence is the idea that G-d blesses those who bless the children of Abraham. That indeed is in the Bible and there’s nothing threatening about that.

    3. Vanity says:

      Fair enough, Jeff. I should have been more careful and formulated my statement as follows: “…because right-leaning Christians with the ability to influence American and/or Israeli policy want…”

      Changed in that fashion, I’m not so sure you’re correct. Not to mention that there is a whole web of reasons why Christian and normative Jewish interests are thoroughly different and ultimately exclusive.

    4. Jeff Ballabon says:

      “…you should be worried because right-leaning Christians want strife and chaos (that whole end-of-days, procurring the second coming, etc. thing…)…”

      Actually, Vanity, while a small percentage of Christians support Israel for eschatological reasons (and even among those, the reality often is far less nefarious than you portray), the vast majority do so for other reasons. Your description is a gross distortion of the truth.

    5. Dovid Gross says:

      Just to prevent any aivah, it is O’Connor, not O’Conner.

    6. Vanity says:

      Yitzchok –

      First, I’m not sure what the latter part of your post has to do with the present discussion.

      Second, I think it’s a shame that these questions don’t interest you. They should. They’re important. Yes, it’s fine and dandy if right-leaning Christians are treating you “fine”…the problem is that while they’re doing this, they’re working *counter* to your interests in Israel and other places. (Of course, I may be out of line here—I don’t know exactly what your interests in Israel are). But…if they are similar to mine and you hope for peace and righteousness, then you should be worried because right-leaning Christians want strife and chaos (that whole end-of-days, procurring the second coming, etc. thing…) Political allegiances can last only so long…ultimately, they will be trumped by theological ones, and right-leaning Christian dogma is thoroughly incompatible with normative Judaism.

    7. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      Some thoughts on the feedback, abbreviated because of proximity to Shabbos.

      Samuel Yehudah, you can rest easier. A host of Christian groups criticized the film. The first were a group of liberal theologians. Their assessment formed the basis of the campaign of several Jewish groups against parts of the film. American bishops were mostly silent (although some made a point of emphasizing to their flock that Catholic doctrine long ago abandoned the idea of collective Jewish guilt for the Crucifixion), but their German counterparts strongly objected to the film. Protestant groups pointed out how many times Gibson took the creative license to inject his own details and views (always to the detriment of Jews!) I stood next to Ted Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, as he spoke about why he liked the film (disagreeing with a Jewish leader at his side), but cautioned that the lesson Christians had to learn from it had to do with love, and should never degenerate into blaming Jews.

      You raise a valid point, Vanity, but it doesn’t interest me at all. I couldn’t care less what right-leaning Christians believe is going to happen at the end of days, as long as they are treating me properly along the way. It is amusing that the Jews who are most offended by Christians praying for them, or believing that they will all convert or perish in the end of days, are Jews who don’t pray, and don’t believe in the end of days! Jews who are secure in their beliefs are not threatened by the belief systems of others. Perhaps this is why Orthodox Jews and Evangelicals often get along so well. Each group is comfortable with its own beliefs, each can understand where the intransigence of the other comes from, and both can talk openly to each other without anyone getting miffed.

      Donald – There are no credentials for posting to this site. Reform Jews are just as Jewish as all others, and just as welcome to post. So, for that matter, are the non-Jews who have been posting here. It might be interesting for you, though, to consider just why Jewish tradition has always rejected finding a moral compass within one’s own heart. We have always understood how easily the heart is swayed by what the Will dictates. People’s hearts tell them a lot of what they want to hear. Having a group examine moral and ethical questions stands a far better chance of getting past human subjectivity. This is especially true when these questions are subjected to agreed upon parameters and procedures, as they are according to the Jewish Law approach.

    8. Barney Martin says:

      In response to Jeff Ballabon’s comments about the Mel Gibson movie:
      Yes, it is anti-Semitic. Incidentally anti-Semitic, gratuitously and crudely anti-Semitic. But only secondarily anti-Semitic. Antisemitism is not the point.

      The message of this flick, if it even has one, is one of horrible pain – it clubs you over the head and kicks you in the kloten with brutal images of the suffering of one man.

      [My opinion, but not just mine alone. Critics all across the spectrum, from movie meyvnim through to religious scholars, have said as much.]

      I suspect that the appreciative audiences of this movie include stalkers and psychopaths.

      Unfortunately the manner in which it deviates from xtian scripture is so subtle that many who watched it did not grasp that it deviated from both scripture and from accepted church doctrine.
      [I shall not go into detail; this too has been said by religious scholars.]

      Yehudah Samuel wrote: “Already we see anti-Semites like Pat (I never saw a Nazi war criminal I didn’t like) Buchanan point the accusatory finger at the “Hollywood controlling Jews” if “The Passion” does not sweep the academy awards.”

      William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, claimed on MSNBC, “there are the ‘secular Jews’ who control Hollywood and hate Christianity.”

      These are both interesting statements which, of course, beg the question why there are so many Christmas movies.

      Forgive the sarcasm, but when was the last time you saw a movie about Judah Makkabi? How about a trilogy about Mattityahu and his son? A thriller or mystery featuring the person of Yochanan the high priest? Maybe a bracing adventure yarn about the heroine Judith (Yehudit) who slew Holofernes?

      [Yeah, these sure are movies that crop up every holiday season like clockwork!]

      As a final note, in emulation of Donald Schwartz, who depreciates his credentials to post here, and also because I would not like to create a false impression of myself, let me state that I too have no credentials to post here.
      I am not Jewish, my relatives are mostly Anglican, as were my parents.
      [I tend to refer to myself as a Torah gentile… ]

    9. Donald Schwartz says:

      Let me start by saying that I have no credentials to be posting to this site. I am a reformed Jew, from a mixed religious background, and in a mixed marriage of my own. All that acknowledged up front, I still feel that problems such as this exist when people speak with the weight of a religious organazation behind them, instead of speaking as individuals, out of heart and conscience. I think this applies to all groups. And I would hope that peoples of good would speak from there hearts and not doctrines.

    10. Vanity says:

      Yehudah’s comments mostly stem from ignorance, I think. Many churches and serious Christian scholars have criticized the movie from various, detailed angles. Of course, there is, in a sense, some truth to what he is saying: many churches, have, likewise, *not* condemned the movie precisely because it adequately portrays certain aspects of Christian theology.

    11. Jeff Ballabon says:

      I’m always skeptical when Jews tell Christians what their religions really mean. I know I’d sure resent being told by outsiders what my religion means. And I certainly wouldn’t take that kind of criticism seriously. If, as you say, no serious Christian scholars diagree with Gibson’s portrayal – indeed, if even only a few serious ones agree with it – then Jews have absolutely no standing to claim it is inauthentic.

      Jews who feel strongly about it certainly can claim it is troubling or frightening to them, but not that it is “bad” Christian dogma.

      Which leads to the next question: if it is a valid, theologically-sound depiction, how much weight should Christians give to Jewish objections or anxieties?

    12. yehudah samuel says:

      Yitzchok Adlerstein makes some very good points. One thing not discussed is the deafening lack of criticism by any
      Christian groups of Mel Gibson’s slanderous movie. Where are the Christian scholars? Why do only Jewish scholars
      point out that Gibson’s movie is based on a radically antisemitic interpretation, not at all existent in the text, of the Christian bible? On the contrary, without exception (please inform me if I am wrong) Church leaders, religious and lay, have not only strongly endorsed the film, but have used it, by renting entire movie theaters and distributing free tickets, to teach congregants about their religion.
      History has sadly taught us that powerful antisemitic images have an extremely long half-life. And nothing is more
      powerful than a movie. Already we see antisemites like Pat (I never saw a Nazi war criminal I didn’t like) Buchanan
      point the accusatory finger at the “Hollywood controlling Jews” if “The Passion” does not sweep the academy awards.

      This movie has turned the clock back to medieval times, to the time before Vatican II, – as was Gibson’s goal – when
      Jews were routinely portrayed as bloodthirsty “christ” killers. Christian leaders and scholars need to replace this
      hateful image with a view more in congruity with their own religious sources. Only then can Christians of good will –
      and there are many – truly heal some of the scars left by 2,000 years of Christian persecution.

    13. Vanity says:

      Yitzchok –

      You’ve done an excellent job of analyzing some trends in contemporary culture, but I am more interested in questions of doxology. Yes, it is interesting to see how *politics* can influence the actions of religious institutions in the public sphere. Politics are fleeting and much more dynamic than theology, though (although, of course, theology is ultimately dynamic, too). Is conservative Christian theology as Jew-friendly as conservative Christians, politically, recently have been? I’m not so sure. Liberal Christian theology?

      I’d also like to point out, that the Presbyterian Church, for quite some time, has been considered a radical as opposed to liberal church within the panoply of Christian entities in the USA.

    14. David Brand says:

      R’ Yitchok,
      Perhaps the cheering isn’t audible. However, I think that Sh’tika K’Hodaah might be even stronger in a blog than the community in general. Consider this my cheer!

    15. Jeff Ballabon says:

      Yeah. What he said.