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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 10 (March 1995)

A Jewish-Christian Dialogue IV:Sandor Goodhart, "Second Reply to Raymund Schwager"

I thank Father Schwager for writing his "Second Reply" to my work and thus continuing the exploration of matters important to both of us. I am especially gratified that he finds my "direct and frank" approach helpful as a way of getting "beneath of the surface" of the discussion since I too feel that "only" if we lay our cards on the table we can hope for real progress. Let me begin with his more general remarks expressed at the end of his article to which his earlier more limited objections may not be unrelated and with which there may be considerably more agreement between us than first appears.

Father Schwager is speaking in the final paragraph about a study by Pinchas Lapides in which the author lodges Jesus within the prophetic tradition and assigns him the role of "preparation of the heathen world for the Jewish Messiah." Father Schwager regards this approach "very positively" both because it utilizes the categories of Christian theology and because it does not condemn. He envisions a future understanding between Jews and Christians in which Jews will have to give up regarding Jesus as a magician who seduces Israel and acknowledge Jesus as "a Jewish prophet with a special mission in the pagan world," and in which Christians will have to give up the traditional theological position that the Church has "finally replaced Israel in its function in the history of salvation," a relinquishing which Father Schwager attests he "personally" accepts.

If this set of ideas is indeed the core of Father Schwager's position, then this exchange has been an especially propitious one since I have no fundamental disagreements with it. Jesus is a Jewish individual working within the prophetic tradition of Jeremiah and Isaiah (among others), within an assimilated context in Hellenized Judaism, who is attempting to carry the prophetic message of the law of anti-idolatry to both those Jews who have begun to turn away from their ancient Jewish heritage and to the non-Jewish world. He is not a magician or a sorcerer but a serious prophetic thinker who is enacting a task he finds marked out for him in texts throughout Torah (for example, in the Joseph story in Genesis) and as such he merits our deepest admiration and attention. The belief that Jesus is a conjuror must be rejected as sacrificial and anti-Jewish. And if Father Schwager includes within his position a renunciation of the Church's traditional claim to have superseded Israel, then we have indeed little about which to disagree. The role of Christians from a Jewish perspective must be the missionary one; to extend the message of the Jewish law of anti-idolatry to the world until Israel becomes "the light of nations." And the role of Jews from a Christian perspective must be the interpretive one; to keep elaborating, explaining, extending the text of Torah as fundamentally anti-sacrificial and as containing the world. Finally, it seems to me possible to agree with Father Schwager that even Paul may not be for Jews "an unsurpassable hindrance" so long as we find in Paul not a rejection of Jews or Judaism as sacred violence (as some have recently claimed) but, to the contrary, an acceptance of the primacy of the prophetic message and of Jewish election. To become fully Christian, I would suggest, is to recognize in positive terms the ways in which one has always already been fully Jewish.

My agreement with Father Schwager's final remarks, in fact, is so extensive that I hesitate to even to raise the earlier objections over which we may differ. If I do so, it is because Father Schwager has been kind enough to indicate them and because to some extent they begin to exceed the parameters to which Father Schwager confines his position later.

1. In the first paragraph for example, I think we may be talking about different understandings of true and false interpretations. Judaism must of necessity reject secular Platonic and Hegelian understandings of the true as aleitheia--as absolute being that which lies beyond contradiction--and which we may approach in good Socratic fashion only by reason and rational decision-making. Father Schwager seems to think that if I give up Plato and Hegel, I become a nihilist (as René Girard has characterized nihilism), that I commit myself to "indeterminacy." I do not. Reason, faith, and conscious belief may be sufficient for Christians. They are not so for Jews. Jewish currents run deeper than that. The Jewish task is not to decide whether a text of Torah or a rabbinic proposition is right or wrong, true or false, but to own our own history within it and assume responsibility for the other individual to who I am primordially obligated by virtue of it. Here I am relying, of course, upon the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig. René Girard's work on mimesis and violence is powerful for me not because it is true but because it is Jewish, because it offers me a vocabulary for explaining my own history and allowing me to assume responsibility. Plato needs things to be decided. Sophocles does not. Nor does Dostoyevsky. Nor does Judaism. Father Schwager may decide for himself whether or not Platonism is essential to his understanding of Christianity or the continuation of his theological work. Judaism does not commit me to being right but to being responsible, to loving God with all my heart and all my soul, to loving others in place of myself. That love and responsibility is my task as part of my co-partnership with God in the creation of the world (as such creation is revealed to us in Torah), and that task will continue until the moment of redemption and the world to come.

Thus Job and his friends are both wrong and right successively and the text enacts for the reader the passage from one position to the other. The prophets may disagree diametrically with each other but each text offers access to God from within a particular historical hour and moment. One Jewish community proposes one understanding of a text of Torah. Another proposes a different understanding of the same text. But both accept Torah as the infinite within the finite, however differently inflected within their individual tongues. If I claim a distinction between the sacrificial and the anti-sacrificial (or invoke René Girard's distinction), it is not because I find one true and the other false but because I find the latter more comprehensive, more ethical, more promotive of life, love, human relation, and human responsibility than the former. The victim of mob violence--whether in the Christian Gospel or Isaiah 52-3--is exposed as innocent not by dogmatic declaration concerning true and false interpretations but by close careful patient textual reading which dismantles the positions of the persecutors, just as Jesus offers his body to his disciples as a "teaching tool," both when he writes in the sand before the would-be stone throwers in the episode of the woman accused of adultery, or more generally when he offers himself as a victim of sacrificial expulsion to show us where our violence is leading. I leave aside Father Schwager's question about the politics of the state of Israel--and in general the relation between the political and the ethical--for another occasion.

2. If all the world finally will be shown to be a part of the "blueprint" which is Torah, then God will in retrospect turn out to have acted through Cyrus as well as through the "suffering servant." God does not take sides between us but within us. He takes the side of the victims we are all capable of becoming or have become against the persecutors we are all equally capable of becoming or have already become. Judaism is not a Manichaeism (however attractive it is for Christians to read it as such) but a monism of the deepest order. All the world--both the evil inclination (the yetzer hara) and the good inclination (the yetzer tov)--will be shown finally to be a part of the divine plan which Torah has simply seen in advance.

3. Finally, if the followers of Jesus lay claim to his resurrection, it is indeed fully within the Jewish tradition (for example, that of Maimonides) that they speak. Judaism does not reject the claim that the dead will be resurrected with the coming of the Messiah, only that one individual has already gone through the process. But it does not seem to me critical in any event to the efficacy of René Girard's thesis that one accept Jesus' resurrection. It is entirely sufficient that we understand the mechanism of mimetic rivalry and sacrificial violence as the foundation of human community without venturing into the intricacies of Pharisaic law (or its violation)--especially by means of a text explicitly hostile to it. Jesus is an innocent victim because the text explains him as such and because he thought of his life in such terms (as the text presents those thoughts and that life to us). To lay the weight of Jesus' life upon what happened afterwards--however much the disciples were convinced that the resurrection occurred, and however much Christianity since has staked itself upon such a literalist reading--is to diminish the importance of that life. Michelangelo seems to have imagined precisely such a danger in his famous Florentine pietà when he sculpted the body of the flesh and blood Jesus slipping irretrievably away from the hands of his adoring and preoccupied family and friends.

An added word on this point. If René Girard's thought is to have a world-wide hearing--and it seems to me that such a hearing should be our goal for it--then it cannot be a precondition of such thought that those who are attracted to it accept either Jewish or Christian postulates, postulates that would effectively close it off from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and countless other religious commitments. Judaism may be my way. Christianity may be Father Schwager's and René Girard's way. But Girardian thinking cannot be limited to any of these paths. Rather than constrain René Girard's thought in such a fashion, it seems to me more prudent to emphasize its extraordinary explanatory power, even if we choose individually to regard that power as testimony to efficacy of our own approaches.

Father Schwager's reliance in his earlier objections upon true and false interpretations and upon traditional literalist and interventionist assumptions about the Jewish God, seem to me, in short, to challenge the genuinely open remarks he offers in his final paragraph. They prompt in me a question for Father Schwager. How do his earlier distinctions and assumptions differ from the position that Saint Augustine renounced in his Confessions as a product of the seductions of youth--a dualistic belief in absolute right and wrong, good and evil, true and false--for a more loving and compassionate God of reading, the word, and the book? If we are to make progress in Jewish-Christian dialogue, I suggest we emphasize those points on which we agree and work from there--namely, the giving up of mutual condemnation, and the ownership of mutual filiation in a project entailing both missionary and interpretive tasks.

If I may, here is a suggestion toward this end. Shortly before his death, Rabbi Abraham Heschel is said to have offered to Christian friends the sketch of a possible future joint path. Rabbi Heschel is said to have remarked: "You say the Messiah has already come but is going to return. We say the Messiah is still to come for the first time. Come, let us stand and wait for him together. And when he arrives, we'll ask him."