Re-envisioning the Other
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Re-envisioning the Other

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn of Bergenfield is an Orthodox Jew. He believes in “the revelation of Torah mi-Sinai” – that the Torah was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai – and “that the idea of mitzvah,” commandedness, “has a claim on me.

“I also believe that the Jews are the chosen people,” he continued.

In some sense, it is not despite but because of these beliefs that he has devoted his career to interfaith relations.

“Once I leave my synagogue, literally the only people with whom I can share these beliefs are pious Christians,” he said.

“There is a good reason for pious Christians and Jews to talk together.”

(There are caveats, he quickly added. “That’s only as long as they are not trying to convert me. But the reality is that in nearly all Christian circles in which there is dialogue, conversion is not on the table. The rules of the dialogue are that we don’t try to convert the other.”)

Korn is co-director of the Institute for Theological Inquiry and the American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, Israel. He has worked on interfaith relations for the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, and Sacred Heart University. He recently edited and wrote chapters in two books, “Covenant and Hope” and “Jewish Theology and World Religion,” both of which explore the relationships between members of different faith traditions.

“Jewish Theology and World Religion” is an “internal Jewish discussion,” Korn said, born out of a 2005 meeting of American, Israeli, and European academics, brought together “to discuss the issue of how to bring Jewish thought more up-to-date regarding how we view Gentiles and non-Jewish religions. The world has changed drastically in the last 100 years; there was a shared conviction that Jewish thought, theology, and law had to come to grips with these new realities.”

This was not a group made up of rebels, Korn said. “Most of them were academics, but it turned out that a high percentage of them were extremely traditional Jews. Because of their commitment, they felt a great need to move tradition forward, to make it more in consonance with the way Jews live today.”

In his chapter, Korn examines “how the rabbis understood Christianity in the Renaissance and the early modern period. I found that there were significant sympathetic opinions toward Christians from traditionalist rabbis. In early modernity, there were extremely positive statements not only about Christians but about Christianity as a faith.”

Citing the thesis of the influential 20th century historian Jacob Katz, Korn said, “it was because of great Christian tolerance of Jews that Jews responded with tolerance in return.

“Much of the traditional sympathetic opinions have been suppressed by traditional Jewish thought because our history was so bad under Christianity that we didn’t really have a lot of incentive to produce them,” he said. “The force of history drove us in the other direction.”

But things have changed. “Today, we have a different reality. If you really understand Christian theology, you see that it’s not at war with ours. This is the perfect time to explore and nurture those traditional rabbinic opinions and see where they can lead us, in an authentic way.

“The seeds are there for us within the tradition. We have to water them so they can flower.”

For example, Korn talked about the leading 18th century rabbi, the great talmudist Yakov Emden, who, he said, often said things that would sound startling today. “He said that Jesus brought a double blessing to the world,” Korn said. “The first is that he brought Jewish ethical values to pagans. The world would still be mired in pagan immorality without Christianity.” Christianity, however, is rooted in Judaism, so it is the Noahide commandments that Jesus and his followers spread. “So Christianity helped civilize the world in consonance with Jewish theology,” Korn said.

“And the second blessing was that Emden read the New Testament, and he used to quote it. He said that if you read it correctly, you’d see that all the commandments that Christians should reject the commandments were directed at Gentiles. Jews were obligated to obey the Torah.”

That understanding of the Christian scripture was unusual, perhaps unique, in Emden’s time, but “new scholarship today said that Christians had to revise their opinions of what Paul said.” Paul, the apostle who founded the church, famously said that circumcision no longer was necessary, but, Korn said, that was addressed only to those Christians who had not started life as Jews.

“Emden was prescient,” Korn said. “He saw where scholarship would be going 200 years later.”

Even Maimonides, “among the harshest critics of Christianity in our tradition,” Korn said, “because he believed that it was idolatry, was forced to admit, in the Mishneh Torah, that he can’t explain it, he doesn’t know the ways of God, but even Jesus prepared the world for the true faith and spread notions of mitzvah, messiah, and morality to the world. He says that as a historical reality, you can’t deny that Christianity somehow supported the Jewish covenant and mission.

“These very traditional, respected halachic sources are not well known in the halachic world,” Korn continued. “Now our charge is to try to develop them as a positive understanding of Christianity, now that Christianity is no longer involved in a duel to the death with Judaism.”

Of course, there are many issues about which there can be no agreement. “To many modern Christians, including the former Pope Benedict, the fact that the church is supposed to be universal is a theological conundrum. It is a profound mystery. It’s kind of a parallel mystery to Maimonides’ problem – how could he understand how idolatry, which is the root of all evil, somehow could produce this good? So Christians who are committed both to authentic Christian beliefs and to the continuing validity of Judaism say that they can’t understand it, but ‘this is what the church asks of us.'”

Benedict, “who was very conservative, wrote that it’s true that there ultimately will be unification, but not until the end of time, and that it’s not for humans to do. Instead, it’s for God to do.” Until then, Korn said, the church would continue to have a special relationship to Jews.

Korn does not deny the long history of the Catholic church’s anti-Semitism and brutality that make many Jews unwilling to trust it even today, but the world has changed since Vatican II in 1963, when the church formally reversed its antagonistic relationship with the Jews. “For more than 1,000 years, Christians were trying to convert us and persecute us, and when that didn’t work, they killed us, so we are justified in being suspicious, but my experience with high-level Vatican officials is that once it” – that is, rejection of the long-held belief that the Jews killed Jesus – “became official doctrine, you can’t deny it.”

Another reason for the change in the relationship between Jews and the rest of the world is the way the world has shrunk. Rabbi Abraham Joshua “Heschel wrote that no religion is an island,” Korn said. We are all connected; none of us is at the center of the world.

We also need friends. “One of the lessons of the Holocaust is look at how vulnerable we are when we’re alone,” he said.

In the end, Korn added, the question is “How do we break out of the old ways of seeing the other as the enemy, and reshape that? It’s a distinctly modern issue.”

Korn’s second new book, “Covenant and Hope,” is written by both Jews and non-Jews, and it is not aimed at an academic audience. In it, 16 Christian and Jewish thinkers consider two clusters of questions. One group asks about the idea of covenant, and the other is about hope.

His own essay in that book argues that there are two covenants, one at Sinai and one with Abraham. The one at Sinai is for Jews, but “it might be possible for traditional Jews to understand Christians as being part of the covenant with Abraham,” an argument Paul made in his mission to the non-Jewish world.

“We have always resisted that idea in the past, because it was always a source of tension and rivalry that Christians saw themselves as being part of the same covenant,” Korn said. “We have the same father, so we’re always fighting.

“There is a famous rabbinic statement that Esav hates Yaakov” – that the older brother, Esau, the hunter, hates his younger brother, Jacob, the youngest of the three patriarchs, who stole his birthright. Because Esau often symbolizes Christians (as the successors of the Romans, whom Esau also symbolized), “that means that Christians are programmed to hate Jews. But that original statement was made before Christianity.

“They both hated each other. It was a zero-sum game. Now, though, we no longer are in that universe. We can admit the concurrent validity of both faiths.

“Once Christians are not trying to convert or destroy us, we can look at our sources, and see Christians as part of the Abrahamic covenant.”

The thinkers who contributed to this book, like the ones who wrote for the other volume, “are not people who want to create something new; who are not bound by their larger faith community or tradition,” Korn said. “They are all trying to work out of the deepest level of their own traditions.

“It’s hard to create something new when you are bound by tradition, but it’s not impossible,” he added. “It’s hard but not impossible. In both books, people are struggling to do it.”

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