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    Two faiths divided by a common Bible

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple to the NSW Council of Christians and Jews, 12 February, 2009.

    During his presidential campaign, John McCain made constant reference to “Judeo-Christian values”. Very impressive, but there is no such thing. The so-called Judeo-Christian tradition does not reflect reality (Arthur A Cohen, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, NY, 1970 edition). Though Jews and Christians often use the same words, these are frequently loaded terms which say quite different things. Like the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland”, we all mean our words in our own way.

    Four premises underpin the idea of a Jewish-Christian heritage: that we share a belief in one God, a reverence for the Hebrew Scriptures, a set of ethical principles, and a sense of optimism for the future of mankind. Each premise needs to be assessed on its own. Our agenda today is the idea that we have the Bible in common. But first we have to ask why it is this particular point in history when the idea of a common heritage has become second nature. It is partly because we are no longer enemies – and partly because we face common enemies. On the defensive against shared challenges, we cannot afford to be on the offensive against one another.

    All our instincts of decency yearn to speak of each other as brothers, though we are not without unfinished business. A leading example: the motives and actions of the wartime pope. You might think this is an issue involving only one section of the Christian world, the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader in the 1940s lacked the prophetic courage to stand up and speak out boldly and bravely, and may even, God forbid, have been secretly pleased that Judaism was under attack. Pius XII did something to save some Jews, but Francois Mauriac, a great Catholic writer, has said, “We did not have the consolation of seeing the successor of the Galilean Simon Peter unequivocally and clearly, and not with diplomatic illusions, condemning the crucifixion of these innumerable ‘brothers of the Lord’.” This is of course the theme of Hochhuth’s play, “The Deputy”.

    But it was not only Catholics but all Christians who in those years (with honourable exceptions) often lacked nerve and conscience, speaking of love but unable or unwilling to put theory to the test. When some churches welcomed the Nazis, they may have been trying to save their lives but they jeopardised their souls. Franklin H. Littell adjudges them guilty, not of heresy but apostasy, and says they had ceased being Christians (“Christians and Jews in the Historical Process”, Judaism, vol. 22, no. 3, 1973, pp. 273-4). Unfortunately the lack of moral courage and prophetic outrage has often accompanied the careers of religious leaders (and I wish I could say Jews are an exception).

    Jews and Christians are supposed to have a common Bible. If they did they would know that one God judges us all. They would acknowledge that the Creator expects His creatures to love one another (Lev. 19:18) and not to stand by a neighbour’s blood (Lev. 19:16). But these creatures are often too busy denying others the right to think and live in their own way, even the right to be. Not that this was an invention of the modern world. There was more than ample precedent in the centuries before.

    A few brave spirits felt the other’s pain, which was also God’s pain and the Bible’s pain. One God, one humanity, one Bible? A dream. The reality was closer to a nightmare.

    Sir Winston Churchill said, “The British and the Americans are one people divided by a common language”. Adapting his words, we might say, “The Jews and the Christians are two faith communities divided by a common Bible”.

    The problem begins with the word “Bible” itself. We both use the word in our own way. The Jews have the Tanach – the Christians have the Old and New Testaments, with an accent on the New. The terms “Old” and “New” Testament are also a problem because they seem to denigrate the Old and elevate the New. However, the terminology has become so enshrined in Biblical discourse that the only alternative is the bland terms, “Jewish and Christian scriptures”, but even this option has its problems. The Jewish scriptures are part of Christian scriptures, whilst the Christian scriptures have no place in Judaism. Jews claim ownership of the Tanach, whilst at least some Christians appear to think that those parts of Tanach which appeal to them, such as the Psalms, are theirs to deal with or amend as they desire: witness the New Zealand Anglican Church’s attempt in 1988 to cleanse the Psalter of most of its references to Zion and Israel.

    For Christians the New Testament is indispensable and the final word of truth. For Jews it is irrelevant, and the only Jews who find it of interest are the academics. Most Jews know only how much they have suffered because of the Christian scriptures, and whenever it has been suggested that Jews study the New Testament there has been immense controversy. An example is a course on the Gospels for senior pupils at the Hampstead Synagogue, London, in the 1920s, abandoned after Jewish protest meetings in many parts of the United Kingdom (Raymond Apple, The Hampstead Synagogue 1892-1967, London, 1967, chapter 7).

    Hence the idea that the two faiths are divided by a common Bible does not concern the New Testament but the Old. In theory the Tanach and Old Testament appear to be the same and to have the same content, if for the moment we discount the issue of the Apocrypha and the order of the Biblical books and the numbering of their chapters. They look like the same book, but they are two separate books. For Jews the Tanach is the foundation document of Jewish history and teaching, both the thought and the ought. For Christians the Old Testament is the lead-up to the New, establishing concepts of spiritual leadership that foreshadowed Jesus. When Christians (if for my present purpose I may view Christianity as a monolith) find passages about the priest, the prophet, the ruler, the messiah, the sage, they read them in relation to Jesus. Moses, Elijah, David become part of Christian history. Jews of course reject this line of interpretation, though Christians do not accept the presuppositions that underlie Jewish exegesis.

    Yet we must acknowledge, understand and appreciate the constant rethinking about the status of the Jewish scriptures that has gone on through the centuries of Christian history, proceeding through a series of typologies that is presumably far from closed.

    To assist in delineating the typologies, I propose to utilise an issue of SIDIC, a Catholic periodical formerly issued from Rome in a number of languages. I know that SIDIC did not necessarily reflect non-Catholic thinking (and even some Catholic groups disagreed with it from time to time), but its contribution was highly important for Christianity as a whole even if it had a Catholic slant. Its sponsoring body was Service International de Documentation Judeo-Chretienne, founded in 1965 in the wake of Nostra Aetate.

    The SIDIC issue to which I want to make reference is Volume 21, No. 3 (1988), headed “Problems of Typology: Reading the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures”. In the first paper in this issue, Rev. Francesco Rossi de Gasperis, SJ, distinguishes between a typology of discontinuity in which “The glory of the Lord has changed camps” and the Old Testament has lost validity to the New, and a typology of continuity whereby one may “listen to the harmonies of God” in both Testaments.

    There follows a more detailed analysis by Rev. Carmine Di Santo who presents three models and draws from them a fourth. I want to summarise his material and then propose a fifth model for consideration by my Christian partners in dialogue. The following are Di Santo’s models:

    1. The dualistic model – rejection of the Old Testament. Associated with the name of Marcion (85-160 C.E.), its tenet was that “the ‘new’ of the Christian Scriptures cancelled out the ‘old’ of the Jewish Scriptures”. Though condemned by the Church, it led to many “stereotyped judgments on the Old Testament”. Littell speaks of “a Christianity purged of its essential Jewishness” (loc. cit., pp. 263-4).

    2. The allegorical model – spiritualisation of the Old Testament. Pioneered by Clement (pope from c. 88-97 C.E.) and particularly Origen (c. 185-254 C.E.), it accepts the Old Testament in its entirety but reads it as allegory. This theory is also a form of rejection “conditioned by greco-hellenistic dualism” and it has the effect of “emptying the Christian faith of its historical dimension”.

    3. The anthological model – the use of the Old Testament as a tool. This sees the Old Testament as an anthology from which can be selected “passages which are … more universally valid or more readily interpreted christologically”, but its selectivity carries “the risk of a loss of meaning and impoverishment”.

    These are models from the past; the author’s own contribution is what now follows.

    4. The incarnational model – the Old Testament as structure. Here the Old Testament enshrines affirmations of permanent value to all humanity; the New Testament “neither adds to nor modifies (it) but incarnates it… (It) is neither rejected nor emptied of meaning but… ‘lived'”, and there is “an essential reciprocity between the Old Testament and the New, each enlightening and being enlightened by the other”.

    The first three models are not necessarily chronological: some or all are found at the same time. Nonetheless, taken in Di Santo’s order and enriched by his own contribution, they show a gradual maturation in thinking, allowing the Christian increasingly to come to terms with the Tanach, though it is still the Old Testament and not the Tanach. Hence my fifth model, which fits the more sophisticated world of inter-faith dialogue. It might be called the dialogue model – the Hebrew Scriptures as both Old Testament and Tanach. It says:

    1. Neither faith can deny the Hebrew Scriptures to the other.

    2. Neither faith can pick and choose in dealing with the classical text or challenge its integrity. When “Hamlet” was translated into Yiddish, the title page said, ‘Hamlet’, von Villiam Shakespeare – Verteitcht und Verbessert – “‘Hamlet’, by William Shakespeare, Translated and Improved”. I would argue that no-one has the right to “verbesser” the contents of the Tanach or any classical work.

    3. Every passage cries out, as the Jewish sages put it, dar’sheni – “expound me!” Jews are certain that their own interpretation is more valid and authentic, but Christians discover different messages in the text. Their exegetical research goes beyond so-called christological passages and their wider Biblical research does not lack potential interest to Jews.

    4. The Tanach is the saga and sancta of a living, breathing, believing Jewish people, the varied story of that people’s encounter with God, the textbook of the Divine will and the “thought” and “ought” of Judaism, the source and inspiration for a destiny intertwined with a land.

    5. The Christian world must acknowledge that Jesus was a Jew brought up on what was later known as the Tanach. Without his Jewish origins and milieu there is no Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly” (Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, NY, 1957, p. 79).

    6. The Tanach must be read in accordance with Hebrew linguistics and not be rewritten by Christians in their own image. When, for example, Psalm 2:12 says nash’ku bar, Christians should not automatically accept the impossible translation, “Kiss the son”.

    7. Both Jews and Christians must recognise that the other tends to interpret certain passages in a way that both faiths will not and can not share.

    Whatever the fashions in technical, academic Old Testament scholarship, Jews and Christians must ask how the text speaks to us today.

    The messages they perceive are bound to differ. But each in their own way, let them echo what the Hebrew prayer book says of the Tanach, that “it is our life and the length of our days” (based on Deut. 30:20).

    The dialogue movement has brought us closer together than for many centuries. We sit together, we stand together. We speak together, we laugh together, we cry together. Nonetheless we still find the other rather strange. Sometimes we rejoice at how well we understand each other; at other times we fret at how incomprehensible we are one to the other. We are quite certain that nobody could be as right as our own tradition is. Speaking as a Jew, I know that some Christians regard the separateness and survival of the Jewish people as one of the sheer mysteries of God. Some are sufficiently worried as to deem it a theological scandal. Others, hopefully, will rejoice that it is a manifestation of Divine grace.

    Jews tend to take a more pragmatic view. “Theorise and agonise if you must,” they say, “but the fact is that we are both here and have no intention of changing horses or fading away. Let, then, each of us say: ‘Brother, I greet you well. I rejoice that you are here. I recognise your identity as you recognise mine. As to who is right, that’s a question for God. The end of days will offer its answer.'”

    Our dialogue today is part of the discussion. Two faith communities divided by a common Bible? True. But though we are separate, the really important task is for us to hear that Bible’s message of morality, whatever the different nuances we bring to its exposition, and to be united by mutual respect.


    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.

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