COV&R-Bulletin No. 8 (March 1995)
A Jewish-Christian Dialogue II
I would like in the first place to thank Father Schwager and Józef Niewiadomski for their extensive and thoughtful consideration of the abstract of my essay, "Isaiah 52-53, René Girard and the Innocent Victim." I offer the following remarks in the spirit of an ongoing Jewish-Christian dialogue.
The point of my essay was to question René Girard's insi stence that the uniqueness of the Gospel is linked to the theory of the innocent victim since that theory already appears in full in the Isaiah text. Thus I am surprised that although Father Schwager seems aware that this is my theme, he never addresses it. The only place (aside from the opening paragraph) René Girard's name comes up at all is in Father Schwager's fifth paragraph, and there only with regard to issues that are questionable (is it clear that "evil" may be equated with "rivalry" and with "violence" in Girard's thinking?) and seemingly unrelated to the issue at hand (what has the overcoming of mimetic desire by Triune love -- if that is indeed what René thinks -- to do with the theory of the innocent victim vis à vis Is. 52-3?). Rather, Father Schwager seems determined to consider my essay as a touchstone for examining the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in general. Let me turn, therefore, in sequence to the paragraphs in which those concerns are raised.
1) "I very much appreciate," Father Schwager writes, "the fact that Sandor interprets the Hebrew Bible in light of Isaiah 52-53." Do I? Do I not rather see Isaiah 52-3 as one of a complex of texts which already contain in full the kinds of insights Girard claims are unique to the Gospel? Which is not to say that the Gospel is not unique. Nor that there are not other things going on in Isaiah 52-3. Nor that the Isaiah 52-3 has any special status with regard to the Tanakh as a whole.
2) No doubt for Christians, as Father Schwager notes in his first objection, Jesus is the "center" of the New Testament. No doubt, equally, as a consequence, the revelation of the sacrificial foundations of culture -- as that revelation is seen to derive from the fate of Jesus -- is central. No doubt either that the Hebrew Bible does not have such a center. But is that a problem? It is only a problem if we assume that it should have a center, and that that center should be Jesus. In fact, from a Jewish point of view, the Torah itself is already such a "center" (one which the New Testament displaces in regarding Jesus as the Word of God), and the revelation of sacrificial violence is everywhere. Christianity's super sessionist claim that Jesus is the center and that Judaism must be read in its light is itself a Jewish borrowing.
Moreover, the notion of a "conflict of interpretations" is less a Hebraic notion than a Platonic Greek one which depends on ontological distinctions between true and false readings. There is no alternative "clarification" in Judaism because the matter there is neither clear nor unclear. Without entering into an extended discussion of the nature of interpretation in Judaism, suffice it to say that in Judaism there are no true and false interpretations, only a multiplicity of readings all of which enable the text -- and the practice of anti-idolatry as reflected in and inaugurated by that text -- to come alive within a given hour or cultural setting. Only if we presuppose that the Hebrew Bible "lacks clarification" and is a battleground of conflicting claims to truth can we argue that a Christian (or any other) perspective resolves that conflict.
3) Yes, it is true that the figure of the suffering servant in Is. 52-53 may be read in different ways. Traditionally the "servant" is understood to be Israel (cf. Is. 41.8). Others argue that it may be an individual. But it is not clear to me how either reading has anything to do with the resurrection from the dead which in Judaism will occur only in the world to come. What is important from a Jewish perspective in Is. 52-3 is the revelation of the dynamic of scapegoat violence, whether that scapegoat is regarded as a single individual or an entire people. Only a Christian reading, which needs to know whether the pro phet is predicting a personal or general resurrection, has a difficulty here. Constructing the text as an impoverished prefiguration the Christian reading then charges that text with being impoverished.
4) Father Schwager's third objection is a very odd reading of Is. 53:4-5. In Judaism the reference of the "we" in Hebrew is not "converts." It is still Isaiah who is speaking, even if he lends his pronominal reference to the entire community. Who specifically the prophet refers to as "we" is irrelevant, and what new understanding of Torah the people to whom the prophet speaks will adopt remains to be seen. Once again only if we presuppose in advance a Christian thematic of conversion can we find an inadequacy here.
5) Father Schwager's fourth objection seems riddled with difficulties. Here are three. a) Is it clear, even from a believing Christian point of view, that the reason for Jesus' rejection in the New Testament is "[his] claim that he came from God in a unique way and was one with Him"? b) Once again, there is no indication from a Jewish perspective that the suffering servant is the Messiah and to be resurrected, and the text is only a problem if the servant is to be so identified. Even if there were such an indication, there is no problem from a Jewish perspective. The word mashiach, messiah, anointed, is commonly applied to kings upon their accession (cf. 2 Sam. 2.4). There is no unresolved tension in Hebrew at least between God acting through Cyrus in one moment, and the suffering servant in another. c) Father Schwager's claim seems in excess here of even a Girardian view. From a Jewish perspective, Is. 52-3 reveals the dynamic of scapegoat violence. That is all it needs to do for a Girardian reading. Girard never claims that Messianic status of Jesus, or his status as resurrected, has any me thodological import. He argues theoretically only for the revelatory message of Jesus vis à vis sacrificial origins of culture. The fact that Girard happens also to be a believing Christian, that he may accept the revelation, the sonship or messiahship of Jesus, has nothing substantively to do with his theory of mimetic desire and violence. His theory makes no claim to explain everything -- as he himself has remarked on numerous occasions. The Christian revelation for him is one instance of the revelation of sacrificial violence. But such a revelation of sacrificial violence is by no means necessarily only Christian. One may be Christian without believing in the revelation of sacrificial violence, and one may accept the revelation of sacrificial violence without being Christian.
Father Schwager's overall strategy, of course, is an old and familiar one. It is the typological prefigurative strategy by which the Church in its earliest days first read Judaism in light of its own assumed truths and then condemned Judaism for not displaying them. Borrowing from the Greek, the Jewish, and other traditions, it enacted the mimetic appropriation it formally attacked. If we are to move forward with a Jewish-Christian dialogue, we need to give up such rote theo-ideological reflexes. In the anti- sacrificial spirit which is also a part of the Christian tradition (as René Girard has taught us so powerfully), we need to challenge such sacrificial interpretative presuppositions, and read these prophetic texts in the historical and religious context in which they occur, texts which could open the door to a common ground for genuine understanding.
In contrast to my uneasiness with the reply of Father Schwager, I find myself sympathetic to Józef Niewiadomski's reply from beginning to end.
He focuses in the first place upon my challenge to René Girard's reliance upon the theory of the innocent victim for defining the uniqueness of Christianity -- which is what my piece was about. He affirms my thesis and adds the astounding suggestion that the Songs of the Suffering Servant "actually form the hermeneutic framework for the New Testament's description of the fate of Jesus Christ."
Secondly, he recognizes implicitly that I do not say that Christianity is not unique, only that René has not yet shown us why it is unique and that the matter remains to be discussed. On the matter of the revelation of the scapegoat victim alone it is not so.
Thirdly, he offers a suggestion regarding what that uniqueness might be which I for one find extraordinarily compelling -- namely, that what the New Testament can cause us to reflect upon is "its perspective," the nature of the "special" and "binding" logic by which the "order of secondary and primary text traditions" get linked. If we note that the word religion comes from this same binding logic, then this is a powerful suggestion indeed.
Fourthly, it seems to me he is right to suggest that such a critical discussion of binding logics is currently foreign to the rabbinic tradition as well where the relation to Christianity is hardly mentioned, and that to raise the question of binding logics between Judaism and Christianity is also to raise it within each domain. We need to examine the Jewish prophetic texts in context of other prophetic texts -- the Psalms, Jeremiah, Jonah, of course, but equally texts which are not formally "prophetic" but nonetheless a part of the post-destruction canonizing spirit in the ancient sixth century which was doggedly prophetic -- for example, Job, and the five books of Torah proper.
Finally, I find his last suggestion the most powerful and the most hopeful. What we may derive, he suggests, from finding Israel to be the place where the sacred logic is broken and the face of God is revealed is the intensification of the potential of this entire biblical history within a single historical existence. Jesus of Nazareth, who is Jewish and whose "passion remains the passion of the suffering servant," and yet who lives and dies within a history of rememberable dates and names, bears witness to a prophetic religious historical experience which is available to all of us.
The implications of Niewiadomski's suggestions are far reaching. The early Church, which substituted itself for the Synagogue, did far more he suggests than "[deprive] Jesus of his Jewish roots." At a moment when the greatest demystificatory truths were available and all could suddenly become possible, it resacralized them. It reconstructed the sacred veil. It read the relation between Judaism and Christianity sacrificially and seized dogmatic control of a special logic it has taken some two thousand years -- and countless body piles -- to recover.
I join Józef Niewiadomski in welcoming the "dead end" of this "sacralizing logic" and look forward to the vertiginous possibilities of a newly available common Jewish-Christian prophetic pursuit. I would also like again to thank both respondents for their efforts, and especially the editor -- Wolfgang Palaver -- for bringing together such a rich array of interpretative orientations.