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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Christian antisemitism and Jewish Denial II: A response to Rabbi Boteach

In a recent article appearing in Jerusalem Post, Why Jews are always viewed as aggressors, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach offers a compelling explanation from Diaspora history and Christian theology for Judaism’s 2000 year history of discrimination, persecution and murder in the lands of Christendom. As Rabbi Boteach writes, Jew-hatred originated with the earliest documents of Christianity, the epistles of Paul and the four canonical gospels. The gospel of Matthew, quoted at more length by Rabbi Boteach, provides the clearest excuse: Pilate asks the Jewish mob, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” And the Jews respond, “Crucify him! ... Let his blood be upon us and on our children" (Matt: 27: 22-25). One need look no further to find motive and justification. What more heinous crime than the murder of God? But there is another stream feeding the passions of Jew-hatred, either overlooked or intentionally avoided, which sheds light on both the intensity and persistence of Christianity’s Jewish Problem.

Considering the importance and public visibility of the man and his message, there is no mention anywhere in the historical record indicating that Jesus, itinerant preacher hailed by Rome as King of the Jews and crucified, ever existed. Nothing appears in contemporaneous Roman documents, and the Romans, like the Germans, were exacting record keepers. Nor does reference to a Christ Jesus appear in any other documents of the period of occupation, Jewish, Greek, or other. Saul, to become St. Paul, appears in the historical record, as do Pontius Pilate, Philo of Alexandria, Flavius Josephus and various insurrectionists described as “failed messiahs.” But the most prominent of all, the person supposedly condemned by the Jews and crucified by the Romans, the man who inspired and is the focus of the new religion, not a word.

Efforts to explain this absence have resurfaced over the centuries beginning, most notably, in Sts. Paul and Augustine and continuing to the present in the 200 year long Quest for the Historical Jesus. The Quest, involving some of the best minds in theology and history, using the most up-to-date scientific tools available to history and archeology, continues to unearth much valuable information about first century Judaism, life and culture, sects, the difficulty of Jewish life under Roman occupation. But of a historical Jesus, nothing.

I do not raise this as criticism but to point out that this doubt lies in the very heart of Christian belief, adds a dimension to our understanding of the intensity and persistence of Christian anti-Judaism, and of its deadly transformation into racial antisemitism. Rabbi Boteach correctly points out that the deicide charge is the excuse for 2000 years of persecution. But there is also the emotional energy resulting from doubt at the heart of the religion. How explain the absence of any record of Jesus having lived? And what if there never was such a person, that the Jesus described in the gospels as preaching, crucified and resurrected was only a myth, what would that mean for the central promise of Christianity, life-after-death through the salvational powers of the Christian messiah?

Rabbi Boteach correctly points out that Christian theology eventually inspired the Holocaust. I merely add another dimension, that existential doubt regarding the existence of the object of Christian worship should also be considered in our effort to understand that religion’s continuing Jewish Problem. By our very existence Jews are and will ever remain an affront and threat to Christian belief.

The 1965 document, Nostre Aetate, was the response by the church to the acceptance of responsibility to the contribution of Catholic anti-Judaism to the Holocaust. The document attempted to shift responsibility for the death of Jesus from the Jewish people, then and now, to the Jewish authorities of the time. The impact of the document on antisemitism was negligible, and antisemitism actually increased following its appearance. The problem is that Nostre Aetate refused to expunge anti-Judaism from the theological heart of Christianity, the gospels. Nor could they since the gospels are considered inspired by or the literal word of God. Any modification of the texts would indicate that either the gospels are false, or that God was in error. In either case the very foundations of Christianity would be challenged, the religion undermined.

In an effort to correct the failings of its earlier effort, the church has scheduled another conclave to address its theology of hate for 2009. But in advance of the new effort church spokesmen made it clear that, as with Nostre Aetate, the gospels would remain untouched. And so Matthew’s eternal condemnation of the Jewish people, 'Let his blood be on us and on our children,' will remain, a continuing source of theological anti-Judaism and inspiration for future lethal antisemitism.

The Jewish Problem is the invention of Christianity. Its purpose is to deflect attention from existential religious self-doubt to a safer, external target. So why do we Jews cooperate in this fatal dialogue? Certainly we are aware of our terrible history in Diaspora, targeted for extermination barely sixty years ago in the nearly successful Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Yet we convince ourselves that we, who by chance of geography survived the Holocaust, are somehow blessed, secure in our chosen Diaspora homeland. We assure ourselves that the Christian world, having perpetrated the unimaginable, surely learned from the horror they committed, could never allow its recurrence. Against the backdrop of 2000 years of Christian animus this must be recognized as, at the very least, wishful thinking. An objective backward glance should at least give us pause, instill doubt. Instead we blithely deny that the Problem even exists. Denial allows us to remain in Diaspora, rationalizing that our adopted homeland is, as our pre-Shoah German relatives described their fatherland in the years leading up to Shoah, “exceptional.” Denial convinces us that we have finally found acceptance as Jews by our neighbors, that intermarriage and conversion offer us and our children security. Conveniently forgotten is the law enacted by the Third Reich and prototype for a future “solution” that a single Jewish grandparent defines and condemns the grandchild.

History describes the past, indicates the future based on that past. Our history in Diaspora is of unrelenting persecution. In the end today’s refuge will prove no more secure than was Germany, home of Jews for more than two thousand years.