Interview with Rabbi Pesach Wolicki of CJCUC –Cup of Salvation

Three years ago, I read an op-ed By Rabbi Pesach Wolicki justifying the creation of a joint Jewish -Christian liturgical service “The Day to Praise,” an event where Christians were invited into an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem to partake in a Hallel service to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut.  The service was conducted by members of the Jewish community affiliated with the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) under the auspices of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. The op-ed fully clarified their approach. Wolicki in the following years wrote more op-eds on related topics including an op-ed justifying a Christmas tree in the Haifa University cafeteria.  I found them a wonderful resource clearly explained for use in an interfaith context.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Wolicki published a book on the Hallel Psalms (113-118) as a theology for Jewish-Christian understanding entitled Cup of Salvation: A Powerful Journey Through King David’s Psalms of Praise. The book discusses an approach to religion of praise and worship for all that God does in our lives. Prof. Brad Young of Oral Roberts University wrote a glowing review. “It is the praise given for the miraculous deliverance at Passover and now for the establishment of the State of Israel. It is meaningful for the Christian community because it is connected to the hymn sung at the Last Supper.”

This interview has elicited several responses. The first of which is by Rabbi Arie Folger- here  The second by Dr. Nechemia Stern is here.  And the third response is by Tomer Persico.

wolicki -cup

I enjoyed Wolicki’s book and consider his approach as important as an exemplar of one of the new models of Religious Zionist/Modern Orthodox thinking. Many are concerned with the Modern Orthodox ideology of this decade of the culture wars, gender issues,  or Neo-Chassidus, however there is a large contingent  turning to a direct reading of the Bible for its prophecies of return to the land. They are creating Jewish Bibles modeled after the Scofield Bible with the prophecies in a different color, they are creating a yeshiva for Christian Zionists with a full schedule of classes, and they are creating joint projects in the West Bank. including some staffed by Christians. One of Wolicki’s colleagues at the CJCUC, David Nekrutman recently did a degree at the fervently Evangelical Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma on the Holy Spirit guiding our Biblical ancestors. And of course, there is the Christian edition of the Jerusalem Post geared for Evangelicals.

Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as the Associate Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding & Cooperation, CJCUC along with David Nekrutman, the Executive Director. He attended York University and his ordination is from the Chief Rabbinate. Prior to joining CJCUC, Rabbi Wolicki served for twelve years as Dean of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah, a post secondary program. Previously, Rabbi Wolicki served as a communal rabbi in the Orthodox synagogues in Fairfield, Connecticut and Newport News, Virginia.  He was raised in Montreal, where his father Rabbi Yosef Wolicki served as a pulpit rabbi. Rabbi Wolicki and his wife Kate live in Beth Shemesh with their eight children.

Wolicki is part of The Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation a division of Ohr Torah Stone. CJCUC’s activities include lectures and Bible studies with visiting Christian tour groups. They do about 150 of these per year. They also visit churches and seminaries throughout the world. These visits usually involve a Bible study or talk relating to the State of Israel. They also host leadership trips to Israel. They also act as  advocates on behalf of the Christian minority in Israel. This includes speaking out in the media when Christians and Christian sites are vandalized by Jews, and by writing op-eds designed to sensitize the Israeli population to the Christian minority. And most notably they host a major “Day to Praise” worship event on Yom Haatzmaut every year at which Jews and Christians come together to sing Hallel and celebrate the State of Israel.

The CJCUC produces a podcast called Cup of Salvation and I recommend starting with this overview podcast from last year on their view of Jewish-Christian relations. 

The interview accidentally did not include a discussion of the basic premise that Rabbi Wolicki accepts that Avodah Zarah- foreign worship “as it pertains to Jews is different from what constitutes Avodah Zarah for a non-Jew.  The normative position of Halacha is that Christianity is not forbidden Avodah Zara for non Jews according to Tosafot, the Rema, and the Shach.” For the Rema, when they refer to G-d, they mean G-d. Hence, for Wolicki Christianity is not foreign worship, Yet, he notes “that these opinions were rendered centuries ago. Christian theology and doctrine have developed significantly since the Rema’s time.

Wolicki’s defense of the Christmas tree said that for the sake of argument even if Christianity is pure idolatry form the standpoint of Jewish law, why would it be forbidden to sit and eat in the presence of a Christmas tree?” Jewish law only prohibits benefiting from Icons and idols that are worshiped, or items used as adornment, or used in worship.  For Wolicki, “A Christmas tree is neither worshiped nor does it serve any function in the context of worship. It is not an icon representing the deity and it does not adorn any idol.”

Despite all this sincerity and effort, Rabbi Wolicki has been the object of attacks in the newspapers by Rabbis who see these activities as idolatrous. “The Day to Praise” Hallel service was “branded by one Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem as” a worship that “sickens his stomach” and a “strange fire.” To which Wolicki politely responds that

Given the 2000 year history of Church antagonism to the Jewish people, the shock of Christians coming into synagogue to partake in a service understandably evokes powerful visceral responses. Many people had the gut reaction that this must be wrong and that there certainly must be some Halacha prohibiting it. The consensus among those critical of the event is that inasmuch as Christianity is Avodah Zarah it is forbidden to pray with together with Christians. Others simply said that interfaith prayer is generally forbidden without even inquiring about or even being willing to hear what exactly was done at the event. Some accused me of blurring the lines between Jews and Christians, which could lead to assimilation, as well as endorsing and enabling Christian evangelizing of Jews.

Wolicki own position shows the commonality of the two Biblical faiths. This is a new era. The 20th century produced many works on their differences and lack of commonality including Abba Hillel Silver, Leo Baeck, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Rabbi Soloveitchik.  In my childhood, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits’ rejection of Christianity was widespread in which “Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism.” Wolicki is important as an Orthodox exemplar of this new era, a change from opposites to commonality.

The return to the Bible has had many forms in the modern era. The Reform movement returned to a Biblical prophetic ethical monotheism, the secular Zionists read the Bible as a cultural treasure and in praise of realistic politics of battles, heroes, and strategy, and the Enlightenment read the Bible as a model of language and poetry. I cannot emphasize enough how much this interview is reflective of a return to the Bible as a Biblical form of religious Zionism that I see growing in Modern Orthodoxy with its treating Israeli history as miraculous and a fulfillment of prophecy in a way akin to Christian Zionism,. This view of living in a millenarian end time focused on a Biblical understanding of the Israeli state is growing.

I am not comfortable with this worldview that almost seems a different religion than my Judaism. I live in a world of Jewish theology in tradition, an overarching rabbinic culture of Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah, of continuity of community and interpretation, as well as many ways of knowing God besides scripture. His rejection of eight hundred years of Maimonides interpretation in favor of excluding Islam is perplexing. The hermeneutical certainty of an author who claims in the interview to love semiotics and Russian formalism is naive. But his speaking regularly to Christians without reference to the Talmud, halakhah or post-Biblical Judaism is against the grain of my role as to informing non-Jews of the Rabbinic tradition and its differences from Christianity. If anyone wants to write a sustained intellectual response, then please contact me.

The interview below presented so much more than I anticipated. I expected a discussion of how to accept Christianity in a post- reconciliation era in which the discussion would focus on a universal commonality or a focus of Christmas trees and other cultural symbols. I also expected a précis of the book on how to read the Psalms as describing a living force in our lives and history. Based on Wolicki’s op-eds, I expected an updated version of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who considered  that the family celebration of Christmas eve should be recognized by Jews as an “echo of Jewish bliss” (Echo jüdische Seligkeit) and not problematic to a Jew with a solid Jewish education. (Jeschurun 4. Jahrgang (1858), 399).

Instead, I received a fully worked out Biblical worldview, which dismisses post-Biblical Jewish thought and experience.  Wolicki presented a Biblical centered worldview of fulfillment of God’s promises, miracles, personal prayer, and  deep relationship to Evangelical forms of Christianity, even to the point of explicitly considering the relationship to Christian Zionism as an intra-religious discussion more than an inter-religious one.

1) Why are you in favor of interfaith prayer? What should that prayer consist of?

Let’s start with the end of the story. For every Bible believing Jew the ultimate goal is the redemption of the world. This redemption is described differently by different prophets, but the basic idea is the same. In Isaiah’s words, the goal is to reach a state wherein “knowledge of God covers the earth as water covers the sea,” or in the words of Zephaniah, when “all are calling on the name of the Lord and serving Him shoulder to shoulder.” The goal is for the entirety of humanity believing in and worshipping the same God – the God of Israel. That’s the game that we’re playing.

Joining in prayer with those who are not Jewish is not a deviation from our mission. In its ideal form, it represents the realization of that mission.

The question, then, is whether or not we embrace expressions or realizations of this idea that are, from a Jewish theological perspective, imperfect and incomplete. Is the complete cleansing of gentile theology of any hint of anything problematic from a Jewish perspective a precondition for shared worship?

Rav Moshe Feinstein has a fascinating responsum on the subject of gentile prayer. The question asked of him was whether or not it is permissible for Jewish students attending public school to participate in the prayers that are recited in school together with the general population of non-Jewish students. He makes the case that it is a mitzvah for non-Jews to pray, inasmuch as it is a basic expression of faith in God in which they are obligated. Hence, so long as the liturgy being recited is not overtly Christian, there is no problem whatsoever with the joint prayer. He states that the nature of the belief on the mind of the gentile as opposed to the Jew during that shared prayer is of no concern to us. Rav Moshe prohibits the joint prayer only in a case when the liturgy was composed in a specifically Christian manner. Neither is he concerned with problematic appearances – mar’it ayin – as he states, “Jews are not suspected of praying to other gods.”

In this responsum, Rav Moshe was discussing a prayer that was composed by gentiles in a gentile context. So why would there be an issue for Jews and gentiles to praise God together using the text of Psalms or a liturgy composed by Jews for the occasion and conducted in a context controlled and orchestrated by Jews?

This responsum reminded me of the Rambam’s ruling in Mishne Torah regarding sacrifices. When discussing offerings in the Temple that are permitted to be brought by non-Jews, Rambam explicitly states that a non-Jew may bring an offering “even if he is an idol worshiper.” Meaning that regardless of how one would define Christianity, regardless of one’s position on the status of Christianity as avodah zarah, were the Temple to be rebuilt today, there would be no problem for Christians to offer their sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem.

When I speak to Jewish audiences about my work, I often quote that Rambam and ask them a simple question. I say to them, “You pray every day for the Temple to be rebuilt. Are you prepared for the Temple to be rebuilt? Are you prepared to come to Jerusalem to bring an offering and find busloads of Christian tourists lining up to bring their offerings? Are you prepared for the vast majority of people worshipping in the Temple being non-Jews?”

Isaiah spoke of the Temple as a ‘house of prayer for all nations.’ Isaiah knew that there are a lot more of them than there are of us. If you have a problem with this, you have a problem with Isaiah.”  Now obviously, Jews and gentiles do not bring the same offerings and are not doing the same things in the temple, but then, neither are Kohanim (priests) and non-Kohanim.

The Jewish people are called upon to be a “kingdom of priests.” If we are the kingdom of priests, who is the flock? I think that Jews are uncomfortable with this aspect of our identity. I think that this is a result of so many centuries of circling the wagons and carefully passing the baton of survival to the next generation. We forgot who we really are.

Rav Moshe was dealing with a prayer in schools. He wasn’t concerned about what definition of God the gentile students had on their minds, so long as the prayer was not overtly Christian. What about a worship service set by Jews, framed by rabbis, led by them? What about a prayer for a shared purpose?

We conduct joint Christian and Jewish praise and worship events on Yom Haatzmaut. There is separate seating and everyone wears head coverings. The format of the event is as follows: a short explanatory dvar Torah on the Psalm was given by a Jew, a Christian read the Psalm in English or Spanish, followed by a musical interlude referencing the Psalm. Six psalms, six divrei Torah, and six songs, with Rabbi Riskin opening and concluding the service with messages stressing the importance of Christian support of Israel and the miracle of the State of Israel in our lifetime.

Both the Jews and the Christians in the room are there for the same reason. All present see the State of Israel as the work of God in fulfillment of the Biblical promise to return His people Israel to their land. All present are praising the God who made those promises for the same reason on the same day. The words they are using are from Psalms. What’s more, one of those Psalms explicitly speaks of “all nations and all peoples” praising God for his abundant kindness to Israel. Frankly, I am surprised by Jews who have a problem with it.

2) Are your views of politics similar to the Christian Zionist pre-millennial dispensation? For both you and them, the messianic events are starting now and we encourage an active role and a dominionism.

Christian Zionists and Jewish Religious Zionists share a definition of the modern State of Israel. Deuteronomy 28-30 describes a lengthy dispersion of Israel followed by an unprecedented return to the land where they will become “more numerous and more prosperous than [their] ancestors.” Recognition that these are no longer prophecies of the future but describe the reality of Jewish history in our time is the basis for any shared view of politics.

The UW Madison historian Dan Hummel touched on this in his excellent essay published by Aeon. The Christian Zionist – Jewish Religious Zionist relationship is not really an interfaith relationship in the traditional understanding of the term. It’s not a relationship based on the liberal idea of tolerance for and acceptance of the value of the difference of the other’s faith system. It’s more of an intra-faith relationship; it seeks and expands upon common points of faith and builds the relationship around what is shared. My understanding is that Christian Zionism is not primarily a political movement. It’s a theological redefinition of Christianity which leads directly to a Bible based Zionism which then produces political activity.

It’s funny, there is a lot more talk of the Christian beliefs in rapture and the millennial kingdom from Jews who are suspicious of Christian motives than there is among Christian Zionists. Christian Zionism is a lot simpler than people make it out to be. God has kept His promises to Israel. The modern State of Israel is the embodiment of that, hence prior supersessionist theology must be mistaken.

What follows from that is a desire to be on board with what is happening with Israel. I don’t think that Christian Zionists think about the Book of Revelations end game nearly as much as Jews think they do. Christian Zionists, as a group, are much more drawn to the Hebrew Bible than their fellow Christians.

I should point out that not all Christian Zionists are pre-millenial dispensationalists. Yes, that’s the largest most vocal group, but there are many different kinds of Christian Zionists. I speak to traditional Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, even Catholics who would call themselves Christian Zionists. They work through the theological issues differently from the stereotypical Evangelical flag waving Zionist. It’s in this more traditional Christian world that I believe there is the most work to be done developing support for Israel. The theological and social issues are different, but there is a lot of depth to their search for answers. For all thinking Christians in virtually all denominations, the State of Israel filled with millions of Jews from every corner of the earth is a theological challenge that must be faced. I believe that Jewish participation in that journey is critical to steering it in a positive direction.

To answer your question directly, yes. We have a similar framework of understanding the reality of Israel today and the role that people of faith play in historical processes. To me, the real question is for those Jews who profess faith in the God of the Bible but do not share this view. Do they not take the prophecies of the restoration of Israel seriously? Do they think that the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 30 is not underway?

I think that many people of faith are afraid of eschatology. I think that many see eschatological thinking as quaint at best, delusional at worst, especially among my friends in the more intellectual Orthodox Jewish community.

3) How do you see following the Bible regarding the State of Israel?

I believe that the issue lies at the heart of the divide between those who recognize the State of Israel as the fulfillment of God’s Biblical promises to Israel and those who do not.

When those people of faith who do not embrace the State of Israel as a fulfillment of God’s Biblical promises make their case, what arguments do they make? They say that it can’t be the redemption because of X or Y in the Rabbinic literature or in Jewish thought. They point out that it makes no sense. For example, “How could the redemption come through non-believing Sabbath violators?” They don’t make their case based on scripture. They reject the eschatological view because it does not sit well theologically.

In contrast, listen to religious Zionists. The case is primarily a Biblical and prophetic one. They’ll directly quote Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Zechariah; regardless of logical flaws that would seem to mitigate against it.

In the more modern Orthodox camp there is a weight given Rav Soloveichik’s interpretation of the State of Israel and the ingathering of exiles, which is very problematic. I refer to his discomfort with identifying the state in Biblically redemptive terms. Rav Soloveichik passed away 25 years ago. He wrote his opinions on the state decades before that. A lot has happened; a lot of prosperity, a lot more population growth. Are we bound by an interpretation of the current reality based on a perspective from close to seventy years ago? Must we turn every perspective from great theologians of the past into an unassailable axiom?

It’s the same on the Christian side, in which, they argue from theology. Paul called God’s continued relationship with Israel a mystery, but supersessionists think they have it all figured out. They laugh at Christian Zionists for being theological simpletons. They’re not simpletons. They see things through a scriptural rather than theological lens. So, what do you do when historical processes seem to be clearly fulfilling Biblical prophecy and it upsets the apple-cart of your theology? Do you reinterpret the events in a way that compromises the integrity of scripture to keep your theology intact or do you revisit your theology because of what God is doing on earth? Is Biblical prophecy subservient to theology or the other way around?

Intellectual people think in terms of theology. But what is theology? Theology is the human attempt to understand, explain, and systematize God. But God is not a theologian. God does not speak that language. God communicates with us in two ways; prophecy and history – what He says and what He does. Theology tries to take everything that God says and does and make sense of it. But here’s the problem. God never promised us that we can figure Him out. In fact, He says just the opposite. “My thoughts are not your thoughts; My ways are not your ways,” doesn’t mean simply that God knows things that He hasn’t told us yet. It means that His ways and thoughts – what He does and what He says – are to some degree incomprehensible to us. At the very least, they are beyond our full understanding. To my Christian friends I make this point by quoting Augustine’s definition of theology; faith seeking understanding. We delude ourselves when we start thinking that theology is more than that; that we have achieved certainty.

On the Jewish side, we ought to remember that the rabbinic idea of lo bashamayim hi – it is not in heaven – refers only to matters of Jewish law. God is not bound by our theology. Why not just look at reality and ask, which opinion in chazal looks like it’s playing out? We don’t get to pasken on the course of history.

4) Most Evangelicals like Oral Roberts University still assume an exclusivist position that salvation is only through Christ as a personal savior, they still hold a replacement theology that when Jesus came, he replaced Judaism, and that Jews are still responsible for the crucifixion.  How can you ignore that and have you made any progress in their changing their views?

The world of Christian academia is a problem. There has been a fair amount of media attention given to polls that indicate that younger generation Evangelicals are less inclined to be pro-Israel. Many think it’s because of the influence of mainstream media and popular culture. I disagree. These same younger Evangelicals are still Republicans and are still pro-life. Those views are not from mainstream media.

A few years ago, we started noticing that the Christian Zionist community was aging. A standard stereotype that we found was that we’d go into a church and the senior pastor, typically in his 50s or 60s, would be staunchly pro-Israel. His younger associate pastor, on the other hand, a recent seminary graduate, would be more stand-offish in the relationship. We did some research. We collected the reading lists for the theology departments of 100 Evangelical seminaries. What we found was that even in the Evangelical world, even in denominations that we would think would be the pro-Israel soft spot, the reading lists were dominated by replacement theology. Jews don’t realize that whether or not a Christian is going to be pro-Israel is not primarily a political question. It’s theological.

We have since made it a priority to try to develop relationships with as many seminaries as we can. I regularly lecture at Evangelical seminaries where they will let me in. Thankfully, as an Orthodox rabbi who knows how to speak to Christians, I am an exotic creature. So, they are usually happy to have me.

The relationship is where it begins. I know this may sound strange to Jews. Why would someone change their theology based on a relationship? Well, it matters a lot. Supersessionist thinking is not taught in this direct “God is done with the Jews. We’ve replaced them” kind of way. It’s more subtle than that.

They don’t call it replacement or supersessionism. They call it fulfillment; that Jesus fulfilled the Torah and therefore the law is no longer binding. They don’t talk too much about Judaism. This subtlety is important. It leaves the door open for nuances and modifications in their thinking. Most importantly, when I speak and teach a piece of Scripture, sharing insights from the original Hebrew, with the professor giving me respect, it changes the way those students see Jews and Judaism.

At CJCUC we just began a very important program. Part of our research revealed that the vast majority of Christian academics teaching theology and Bible have never been to Israel. They have never come face to face with the realities on the ground. It’s impossible to overstate how critical a visit to Israel is in changing a Christian’s thinking about Israel and the Jewish people. We decided to start bringing these academics to Israel. These are the people who are training the next generation of pastors and leaders. In January 2019 we will host our first group. Besides seeing the important Biblical sites, they will be meeting with numerous leading Jewish scholars. Not to mention, that our staff will be with them, developing those personal relationships throughout the trip.

Is the theology taught in the classroom a problem? Yes. But in the end of the day, Scripture is more important to most Evangelicals in the pews than theology.

5) What is a personal relationship with God?

I love this question. As a Jew who spends a lot of time with Christians, I find myself discussing this issue quite often. I also love the question because no Christian would ever ask it. It’s a very Jewish question.

I think the best guidebook for our relationship with God in all of its facets is Psalms. Elation, theological contemplation, suffering, praise, nationalism, fear, love; the entire range of thoughts and emotions relating to God is expressed in Psalms.

To keep things simple, we live our lives of faith in different dimensions; thought and emotion, fear and love. These different dimensions require balance. We have a personal dimension to our faith; our prayer experience, our own private struggles, our own personal moral standing before God, our own mortality; these are things that concern every person of faith.

At the same time, we have a broader context in which we connect with God. History, covenantal relationship to the nation of Israel, the repairing of the world to bring all humanity to knowledge of God. There is a universal mission and goal.

You can count the lines in our daily liturgy that speak in the singular on one hand. Everything is about we, the Jewish people. There’s very little personal. But it’s all over Psalms. Read elohai netzor recited after the Amidah three times a day. It’s deeply personal. The danger in all of this is that for so many Jews there is very little development of a personal relationship. And we need it.

6) What is the role of miracles in our lives?

What is a miracle? A miracle is a deviation from the laws of nature for God’s purposes. That’s the easy part. What’s trickier is identifying those contemporary events that qualify.

I remember during the 1991 Gulf War when the scuds were raining down on Israel there was a lot of talk of miracles. There was a news item on Israeli TV that I’ll never forget. A building in Tel Aviv, or thereabouts, was hit by a missile. The building was mostly destroyed. But there was one piece of the building that somehow was untouched. There was an elderly woman who had not made it to the bomb shelter who was in that part of the building at the time. She came away without a scratch. She was not a religious woman. She made that abundantly clear. When asked on camera for her reaction to what happened she was adamant. “Zeh lo nes! Zeh LO NES!” She was insistent that this was not a miracle. It gave new meaning to the rabbinic dictum, ain baal hanes maker beniso (the one who benefits from a miracle does not recognize the miracle) – in other words, the last one to recognize a miracle is the one that it’s happening to.

And this is the key to answering your question. The role of miracles is what we choose it to be. Here again, the more intellectual set gets uncomfortable. Miracles in Tanach? Fine. Miracles in our lives, in modern Israel, in the history of the last 100 years? Skepticism. As long as it’s not too close to home people are more willing to embrace God’s actual activity in the world. It’s almost as if so much of the Modern Orthodox intellectual set is really Spinoza in orientation with an allowance for an inner spiritual life  of neo-Chasidism. But a God who is actually alive and active in history? Not so much.

7) How is atheism and secular culture the new paganism?

In the introductory essay to the classic academic work on the Ancient Near-East, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, Henri Frankfort described the difference between the ancient pagan and the modern secularist. Ancients and moderns alike see man as “imbedded in nature and dependent upon cosmic forces.” The difference between them, in Frankfort’s words, is that, “for modern, scientific man the phenomenal world is primarily an ‘It’; for ancient man it is a ‘Thou’.” Later in the book, John Wilson and Thorkild Jakobsen make the point that the concepts of morality and ethics as we know them – the idea that there is an objective “right” and a “wrong” – did not come into being until very late in the game in ancient cultures. The relationship with the gods – the governing forces – was one of crass pragmatism. If I do this and this, my crops will grow and the gods will leave me alone. If I do that, they will be angry and there will be suffering. “Right” and “wrong” were really just about what is practically wise or orderly vs. what was ineffective or chaotic.

This is the crux of the issue. Are we subservient to the forces of nature; forces that do not seek our well-being and do not direct the course of history? Or are we in a worshipful relationship with a God who has a plan, who loves humanity, and has endowed us with the ability to master nature for higher purposes; a God whose traits we seek to emulate?

Today, it’s no longer the “Thou” of the pagan gods, but the world view is essentially the same. It ends up in the same place. The forces of nature are all that there is. These forces neither care about us nor do they imply any moral necessities; only pragmatic ones.

8) Does your book teach a universalism in which all the nations work to build God’s kingdom or is there a special relationship with Christianity to the exclusion of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhists, or Agnostic-secular Westerners?

I believe that there is a special relationship with Christianity. I don’t see how there can be a place for non-Biblical faiths in the building of God’s kingdom as described by Zechariah, “And the Lord (YHVH) shall be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord (YHVH) shall be one and His name shall be one.” If someone professes belief in a god other than the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, how are we partners in building His kingdom?

I categorically reject the notion that Islam believes in the same God as we do. I think the explanation is quite straightforward. What do we know about God? How do we define Him? We are not a faith system based on some Aristotelian derivation of the concept of a Higher power. We have never actually seen God face to face. Our religion is based, first and foremost, on the authority of Scripture. We know Him through Scripture. If I say something about God – what He said or what He wants from us – that contradicts Scripture, then I am wrong. Outside of the scripture we have no description of God.

It follows that a religious system that rejects our text cannot claim to believe in the same god as we do.

Sure, they can say it, but it’s meaningless. Muslims and Jews believe in the same God. Really? But my book has God doing, wanting, and saying A, B, and C and their book has Allah doing, wanting, and saying X, Y, and Z. How is that the same God? Again, we only define and derive who God is by what He told us about Himself. If you have a different list, it’s not the same God.

The fact that Muslims assume that Allah is the God of the Bible – a theological position taken by Muhammad – does not obligate me to accept their assumptions. Let’s say, for example that someone decided that Zeus is actually the only god, and guess what? – he’s the same god as the Jews worship, I would never accept that.

This is where the relationship with Christianity is different and more complicated. We share the Bible with Christianity. Christians, like Jews, believe that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired. They share our belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Sinai, or Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel.

9) How is this supported by Maimonides? Isn’t your reading against the grain of others?

Quite frankly, I don’t think that what I said represents a Maimonidean way of thinking. Maimonides saw theology as primary, not necessarily Scripture. He pretty much says this in the Guide. At the same time, while Maimonides is certainly the most famous and most studied Jewish theologian, much of mainstream Jewish theology is decidedly not Maimonidean. Accordingly, while I wouldn’t claim that my thoughts on Islam are consistent with the Rambam that does not inherently invalidate my thinking.

That said, it is certainly worthwhile to look at this issue through the lens of Maimonides. I believe that even in his writings on Christianity and Islam there are nuances that are often overlooked.

Of course, theologically speaking for the Rambam, Judaism is closer to Islam than it is to Christianity. Rambam ruled unequivocally that Christianity is avodah zarah and that Islam is not, distancing Christianity from Judaism in a way that is not applicable to Islam.

But the Rambam discusses Christianity and Islam in other contexts apart from their theology. For example, in Mishneh Torah Hilchot Melachim ch. 11, Rambam famously discusses Jesus and Christianity. After explaining why Jesus was clearly not the Jewish Messiah, he goes on to say that despite the disaster that Christianity brought upon the Jewish people in the past, the purpose of Christianity and Islam are,

“solely in order to pave the path for the king Messiah and to repair the entire world to serve Hashem together… How so? The entire world has now been filled with the concept of the Messiah, the concepts of the Torah, and the concepts of the commandments. These matters have spread to the most distant lands and to many primitive nations.”

Whenever I share this passage with a Jewish audience, I get surprised reactions. People are aware that the Rambam held Christianity to be idolatrous. They find it counter-intuitive that he would say that a religion that is avodah zarah exists “solely in order to pave the path for the king Messiah.” But this passage is not about theology. We make a mistake if we conflate theology and eschatology. The Rambam clearly had no problem putting Islam and Christianity on equal footing eschatologically regardless of the fact that one is idolatrous and the other is not.

I believe that this same conflation is in play when people read the well known responsum of the Rambam permitting teaching “the commandments and commentaries” – mitzvoth uperushim – to Christians while prohibiting such teaching to Muslims. The Rambam is not talking about theological closeness. He’s talking about how productive or counter-productive such teaching would be. These are not the same thing.

His reasoning is fascinating. Since Christians share a faith in the authenticity of our Bible, there is a possibility that they will respect what they are being taught as an explanation of the text. Perhaps it will open their eyes to a new understanding and bring them closer to us. Muslims, on the other hand, do not share our scripture and therefore will reject anything that differs from their own beliefs. There is nothing to gain in the process.

In this specific context, whether a religion is idolatrous or not is, frankly, irrelevant to the ruling of the Rambam. He’s talking about effectiveness in helping to cleanse these religions of their mistakes.  Since Christians respect and share faith in our Bible, there is more to be gained in the teaching. What the Rambam is saying is that even though Islam is closer to us theologically, Christianity is closer to us Scripturally. So, when it comes to teaching Scripture there is greater chance for positive effect than there is with Muslims.

To put what I see as a special relationship with Christianity another way, Psalms 126 and 117 both speak of multitudes among the nations praising the God of Israel for restoring the nation of Israel to our land. Why and how would there be multitudes among the nations who would praise our God for that? How would they even know about Him? Why would they see our in-gathering as the fulfillment of a divine promise? Obviously, the premise is that they must know about Him and His promises to us. Well, here we are. We’ve been restored.

The exile is winding down and sure enough, there are multitudes among the nations that praise the God of Israel for restoring us to our land. And it isn’t multitudes of Buddhists, Muslims, or Noahides. It’s Christians. I think that if the Rambam were alive to see this he would say, “That’s exactly what I had in mind.” I know he included Islam as playing a similar role as Christianity, but he didn’t explain how that works. He did refer to the spreading of the Bible, obviously referring to the Christian role. How the Muslims “pave the path” for the Messiah is less clear to me.

10) What is the meaning of the Psalms?

Psalms was written with prophetic inspiration. These are not just the personal laments, prayers, and praises of individuals. They speak a universal language for all people in all times. When there are Psalms that are overtly eschatological, they are painting a picture for all the generations to come of what the end game looks like. The history in Psalms is a description not of the events themselves but of the human reaction to the great unfolding of God’s plan. Psalms describes our experience in faith of what God does in our lives and in the world.

What is uniquely me about the book is the analysis of Psalms as coherent poetry. I have always loved studying Psalms and always felt that the classical commentaries did the Psalms a disservice by using basically the same exegetical approach that they use for the rest of Scripture. Psalms is a very different book.

Psalms are poems. They are meant as poems and ought to be treated as poems. Most commentaries ignore this fact. For example, when an unusual word is chosen over the more common alternative, all of the classical commentaries will be satisfied by simply making it clear that the word means what it does. Not one of the traditional commentaries that I found address the simple question, “Why was this word chosen over the more common word? What nuances does this word carry from its other uses?” These are poetry questions. Poetry assumes multiple layers of association in the choice of words. It assumes a certain flow of ideas from beginning to middle to end of a poem. None of these issues are addressed by the classical commentaries. The Malbim and Rav Hirsch approach these issues at times but not consistently or thoroughly.

I was a literature major. I enjoyed the classes that most literature majors hate; literary criticism, semiotics – I loved that stuff. I particularly connected with the approach of the Russian formalists and their emphasis on both seeking repeating motifs and divorcing the text from writer’s intent. Interestingly, Rav Kook, in his brilliant introduction to Ein Ayah makes the case for this approach to Aggadata. My approach to exegesis was profoundly affected by this part of my education.

11) The Christian Zionists know almost nothing about the Talmud, Rabbinic Judaism, and halakhah. Is there any goal of correcting this lack or pointing out our differences?

I don’t spend much time or energy explaining Judaism. That’s not my goal. When I am asked a question or am faced with a misconception, I respond. But the goal is really to connect over what we share; to recognize that we share a lot more than anyone on either side realizes. Along with that is the goal of helping Christians to think differently and more respectfully of Jews and Judaism.  I think that this is an important objective.

Over and over again, I have seen how the inclination to proselytize Jews is weakened the more they build a relationship of respect with Jews. When a Christian begins seeing us as a source of teaching, as an authority that they want to learn from, it makes it much more difficult for them to keep thinking that they need to change me. In many cases, the relationship challenges them and I consider that a good thing.

 

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