Rabbi Wolicki speaking to African Christians visiting Israel for Sukkot. (Photo: Courtesy)
Why Religious Zionists Should Engage with Christian Zionists
BY RABBI PESACH WOLICKI
As a rabbi working in Jewish-Christian relations, I am often asked about the permissibility of the work I do. If opposed to my line of work, the questioner will usually cite the Rambam (Maimonides), the 12th century scholar who ruled that Christianity is a form of idolatry (Laws of Idolatry 5:4). For many in the Orthodox Jewish community, the ruling of such a towering halachic figure makes them uneasy. Though there are great halachists who do not view Christianity as idolatry, for many Orthodox Jews, Rambam trumps all, and so they assume it is prohibited to engage in any religious conversations with Christians or members of other religions. In fact, as we will see, Rambam himself explicitly rejects this view.
The Rambam was certainly no fan of Christianity. He lived during the times of the Crusades and was acutely aware of the Jewish people’s terrible suffering at the hands of the Christians of his time. In addition, Rambam’s unique formulation of monotheism meant that he deemed a Trinitarian understanding of G-d (Father, Son and Holy Spirit as co-equal and co-eternal) as pure idolatry.
In light of this, the following statement about Christianity from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah is all the more remarkable.
Jesus the Nazarene… who imagined that he was the Messiah and was killed by the court, Daniel had prophesied regarding him, as it states “Those rebellious among your own people will rise up in fulfillment of the vision, but will fail.” And is there a greater stumbling block than this? That all of the prophets spoke of the Messiah redeeming Israel, saving them, gathering in their dispersed and strengthening their observance of the commandments; and this one, [Jesus], caused their loss by the sword, the exile of their remnant, their suppression, replacing their law, and leading most of the world astray to serve a god other than Hashem.
However, the thoughts of the Creator of the world – man is not capable of conceiving of them, for His ways are not our ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts. And all of these matters of Jesus the Nazarene – and of the Ishmaelite who arose after him [Muhammad] – were solely in order to pave the path for the king Messiah and to repair the entire world to serve Hashem together, as it states, “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of Hashem and serve Him shoulder to shoulder.”
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 nations of uncircumcised hearts. They discuss these matters. Regarding the commandments of the Torah – some say these commandments were true but have since been negated in our days and were not to be practiced for the future. Others say that hidden matters are meant by them and that they are not meant to be understood according to their simple meaning, but that the Messiah has already come and revealed their secrets.
And when the true king Messiah will arise and will succeed and be exalted – as a direct result they all will retract and know that their ancestors bequeathed falsehood to them and that their prophets led them astray. (Laws of Kings, Chapter 11)
Rambam’s remarkable statement is extremely nuanced and complex, and so a careful, honest, and fair assessment of his words is in order. I do not wish to “cherry pick” some of Rambam’s statements while ignoring others. Neither will I claim that Rambam would assign a different halachic status to today’s Christianity, even though Christianity would later go through a major transformation resulting from the Protestant Reformation, leading to thousands of denominations with many theological differences from the Christianity that existed in Rambam’s generation. Conjecturing about what thinkers of earlier time periods would have said under new circumstances is unhelpful and intellectually dishonest.
Instead, let us carefully and honestly read what Rambam himself is saying. The context of the above quotation is his halachic treatment of the concept of the Messiah. Rambam lays out the definition of the term and the qualifications of a would-be claimant to the title. In this context, Rambam makes the following four points:
- Jesus was not the Messiah. In fact, he had the opposite effect of the Jewish Messiah; i.e. he led Jews away from Torah and into greater suffering.
- Nevertheless, Jesus was a significant catalyst of G-d’s plan “to pave the path for the king Messiah and to repair the entire world to serve Hashem together.”
- This “paving” and “repairing” come about through the spreading of the core ideas and ideals of the Torah to the entire world.
- When the real Messiah will come, Christianity will be proven false and will be rejected by its adherents in favor of an entirely Jewish form of faith.
In other words, Rambam held firm to the position that Christianity is idolatry. At the same time, Rambam considered Jesus and the religion he spawned as part of G-d’s plan “in order to pave the path for the king Messiah and to repair the entire world to serve Hashem together…” These two points do not contradict one another. In his eschatology, the Rambam saw that Christians would eventually acknowledge what we say everyday in our Aleinu prayer – “Then Hashem shall be King over all the earth; on that day Hashem shall be One and His name One.” Moreover, he understood Christianity as a step in that direction.
What is Rambam saying about Christianity? Does he view Christianity as a positive or negative force in the world? The short answer is that in the broad historical view, Christianity is both. It was disastrous for the Jewish people, leading to a decline in Torah observance and a great deal of suffering. Yet, in the big picture, Christianity was very good for the world. It has served as a vehicle for spreading the knowledge of Torah, its commandments, and the biblical plan for the world, “paving the path” to the ultimate redemption.
In sum, Rambam is making two critical points: (1) that Christianity has been problematic in the past yet is valuable for the long-term future, and (2) that Christianity was harmful to the Jewish people but brought good to the nations of the world.
In my conversations with Jews who are uncomfortable with Jewish-Christian dialogue, I often hear three different sentiments express their opposition. They can be summed up as: (1) “Who cares what Christians think of us?”; (2) “Christians are historically our enemies. They can’t be our friends. They just want to convert us!”; and (3) “Christianity is avodah zarah!” This passage of Rambam provides a sound response to all three of these challenges.
It is understandable that many Jews believe it doesn’t matter what the nations of the world think of us. Centuries of enmity and persecution are reason enough to feel this way. The problem with this attitude is that it’s wrong; it does matter what the nations think of us! In fact, what the nations of the world think of us speaks directly to the G-d-given mission of the Jewish people on this earth.
Although this point can be proven using many sources – scriptural, liturgical, and Talmudic – I will use the Aleinu prayer recited three times daily as an illustration. The first paragraph of Aleinu speaks directly to Jewish particularism: “For He has not made us like the families of the earth and has not placed our portion among them…” We proudly state that we serve Hashem and the nations do not. We thank Hashem for our unique status. However, lest one think that this Jewish particularism is the end goal, along comes the second paragraph.
The second paragraph of Aleinu speaks of the Jewish covenantal mission “to perfect the world in the kingdom of G-d so that all people of flesh shall call Your Name. All the inhabitants of the earth shall know and recognize that to You all knees shall bend, and all lips shall swear.” The opening words of the second paragraph – Al kein, “Therefore” – link it causally to the first. In other words, the particularism of the Jewish people spelled out in the first paragraph is intended to facilitate the universal goals of the second paragraph. We are meant to be the catalyst for the recognition by all humanity of the one G-d.
Jews who claim “it doesn’t matter what the nations think of us” do not deny the universal mission of Israel to spread knowledge of G-d to all humanity. Rather, they likely believe that this goal will somehow be miraculously achieved by a kind of “flip of the switch” at the end of days; that at some point there will be overtly miraculous events that will cause “the lights to go on” and all the non-Jews, regardless of how distant they may have been from faith in G-d, will instantaneously believe in Hashem.
But if this sudden eschatological vision is correct, why would Rambam see a need to “pave the path” for the coming of the Messiah by inculcating the peoples of the earth with Biblical values and ideas? If their faith will be the sudden result of G-d “turning the lights on”, what difference does it make what they believe before that time comes?
More fundamentally, there is neither a Torah source to support it nor is there a rationale for believing that the transition to faith will happen suddenly and miraculously. Why would G-d do that? What value is there in a faith attained under the duress of extreme miraculous revelation rather than development through free will? One can argue that G-d’s ways are unknown to us and this is, in fact, His plan for humanity, but without a source to support it, it remains an irrational and unfounded belief.
Rambam believed that humanity will come to faith in G-d gradually, through a long historical process. This process may even – and often does – involve tragedy for the Jewish people along the way. This leads directly to the point of our discussion, namely the value – both religiously and pragmatically – of Jewish-Christian dialogue and bridge-building in our times.
Strangely, many of those who believe humanity will suddenly and miraculously accept the truth of Judaism are Religious Zionists. The two most fundamental tenets of Religious Zionism are (1) that historical processes leading to the redemption happen gradually, and (2) we are responsible to actively participate in the redemptive process. Therefore, Religious Zionists believe that the modern State of Israel and the mass ingathering of Jews to Israel represent the beginnings of the final redemption foretold throughout the Bible.
Herein lies the inconsistency. Is this gradual process of redemption limited to the ingathering of Jewish exiles and the founding of a Jewish nation-state in the Land of Israel? Isn’t it logical that the process of drawing the nations closer to faith in Hashem and to true Biblical values will happen gradually as well? It is inconsistent to believe in a gradual process which includes the acceptance of imperfect intermediary steps regarding one aspect of the redemptive process – the ingathering of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel – while rejecting the possibility of a similarly gradual process with regard to the universal aspects of the Jewish eschatological vision.
Do we believe that we are called upon to be active participants only in the building of the Jewish nation-state but not in the process of tikkun olam bemalchut Shadd-ai, “the perfection of the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty”, as spelled out in the second paragraph of Aleinu?
As for the claim that we must not have dialogue with Christians because Christianity is idolatrous, the response is the same. Are we meant to wait for the sudden “flip of the switch” when all believers in other religions will miraculously drop their mistaken theology in favor of Judaism? Or is it more likely that we are obligated to engage with those willing to listen and to promote Jewish understandings of Biblical text, faith, and the Torah’s definitions of right and wrong? Should we ignore the progress – both theological and ethical – that the Christian world has undergone in drawing closer to our understanding of G-d’s word? Are we incapable of recognizing the footsteps of the universal redemption of all of humanity?
To those who claim, as if it is axiomatic, that we can have nothing to do with worshipers of idolatry, let us return to the Rambam. In the Laws of Sacrifices (3:2), Rambam rules that a non-Jew can offer a sacrifice in the Temple “even if he worships idolatry”. To illustrate this point, imagine a rebuilt Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem. Imagine that someone who staunchly cites the Rambam’s definition of Christianity as idolatry is waiting in line to bring an offering in the Beit HaMikdash – and the next person in line is a Christian! The Rambam is clear. He rules that a Christian can offer sacrifices in our Temple without changing one iota of his Christian faith. Apparently, for the Rambam, idolatry does not disqualify one from serving G-d alongside Jews. Furthermore, as we have noted above, in Rambam’s view, Christianity’s status as idolatry does not disqualify it from being a positive force that paves the way to universal knowledge of Hashem. Why, then, would anyone believe that the Rambam is opposed to any and all interaction with Christians?
Many Jews claim that it is forbidden to discuss matters of religious content with Christians. Yet it is the Rambam himself who rules that it is permissible to teach Torah to Christians because they accept the divinity of the Tanach (Responsum 364). As counter-intuitive as this ruling may be, the Rambam – who ruled that Christianity is avodah zarah – also ruled that it is permissible and even a positive endeavor to study Torah with Christians.
Rambam lived in a time when Christianity was anything but friendly to the Jewish people. He believed it to be an idolatrous faith. And yet he had the breadth of vision to see that, paradoxically, something that threatens Judaism and Jewish survival in one era may, at the same time, be a force that assists in bringing about the ultimate success of the Torah and Judaism in the future.
As for the issue of Christian proselytizing: While it is certainly true that a large percentage of the Christian world still seeks to actively convert Jews to Christianity, it is also true that increasingly there are many Christians who reject this goal. This change is occurring across the Christian spectrum.
Moreover, despite what many Jews believe, the vast majority of Christian support for Israel is not tied to the goal of converting Jews. Christian support for Israel and the explosion of interest in what Christians refer to as the “Hebrew” or “Judaic” roots of Christianity is a direct outgrowth of the increased emphasis on the Torah – what Christians refer to as the Old Testament – and the apparent fulfillment of prophecies relating to the ingathering of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.
Whether or not this fascination with Israel is a passing fad, a tactic for missionary work, or a genuine and sincere devotion is an open question. The truth is that there are Christians who fall into each of these categories. One thing is certain and unarguably true: the surest way to ensure these developments are steered towards a long term and positive view of Judaism resulting in reliable support for Israel is to engage those Christians who have opened themselves up to a relationship with our people. Those who recoil from this open door and refuse to engage with Christians will ensure that the current window of opportunity in the Jewish-Christian relationship will be fleeting. How is this the wise course to choose?
The historical barriers that many Jews feel towards a respectful relationship to Christianity are understandable. We Jews have long memories. But we must take a lesson from Rambam and be broad-minded and humble enough to see that “His ways are not our ways, and our thoughts are not His thoughts.”
In a similar vein, only a century ago, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook wrote in uncompromisingly negative terms when discussing Christian theology (Kovetz 7:155, Kovetz 6:203, Orot 33). At the same time, when discussing the value of religions in general and Christianity in particular, the very same Rav Kook wrote:
The inner ethical content that any religion contains must be respected. And it is appropriate for any intelligent person to understand that those who practice those religions according to their traditions are involved in avodat Hashem – service of G-d – in their own way. (Linvuchei haDor, ch. 8)
The lesson to be learned from these great rabbinic luminaries is difficult for many to digest. We can have stark disagreements with members of other faiths and reject their theology in the strongest terms. And yet, simultaneously, we can respect their positive role in G-d’s plan, look forward to worshiping side by side in the Beit HaMikdash, and even, as Rambam ruled, study Torah together with them.
More and more Christians are reevaluating their understanding of Jews, Torah, and the origins of Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism. These are monumental changes! Like the refounding of the State of Israel, this too is part of the “first flowering of the redemption”. The principles that apply to the process of our own national redemption must guide us here as well. We must recognize that historical changes happen gradually, and that it is our duty to actively participate in these changes and bring the nations closer to the Torah’s ultimate goal. In the words of the Rambam himself:
…to pave the path for the king Messiah and to repair the entire world to serve Hashem together, as it states, “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the L-rd and serve Him shoulder to shoulder” (Tzefanyah 3:9).
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is the Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish–Christian Understanding and Cooperation. Together with Pastor Doug Reed, he hosts Shoulder to Shoulder, a popular weekly podcast that gets to the heart of issues that matter to people of faith. He is a regular contributor to Israel365news.com, a pro-Israel news site serving the Christian community.