Christian Cross and Jewish Star of David. Credit: Creative Commons.

Right now, decades of progress on Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue is unraveling. What had been a period of unprecedented advancement has been halted and replaced by (Christian) frustration and (Jewish) anger.

Interfaith relations now seem to exist only as part of the established hierarchy of formal Jewish and Christian communal structures. The realms of acceptable debate are securely locked down, confined to domestic issues and the sharing of religious practice. Any serious challenge by Christians or Jews to the status quo on Israel is considered firmly out of bounds.

So what’s happened and what can be done to get back on track and establish a mature, open, and honest interfaith conversation that doesn’t fall apart as soon as Israel or the Palestinians get mentioned? Here, I want to examine how distorted presentations of Christian theology and fossilized views of Judaism have become part of the new and disturbing dynamic of Jewish-Christian interaction.

Stifling honest debate

Antonia Fortress and Herod's Temple, Jerusalem. Credit: Creative Commons.

Over the last few years, it’s become clear that a favorite method of criticizing Christian intervention in the Israel/Palestine debate is to accuse Christians of using “replacement theology” to deny Jewish claims to the “Promised Land.” Replacement theology is a strain of traditional Church teaching that has been thoroughly discredited through the process of Jewish-Christian dialogue but which has now been given a new lease of life by those wishing to use it as a blunt instrument to stifle an honest debate about a genuine injustice.

It’s becoming a rather tiresome sequence of events. American Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists, and Anglicans have all been fed through the mangle on this. Usually, it ends up with accusations of anti-Semitism on the grounds of attacking the very heart of modern Jewish identity.

Most recently, it’s been the Church of Scotland with its Assembly’s adoption of The inheritance of Abraham? A report on the “promised land.” The Jewish communal response was reported in the UK’s Jewish Chronicle on 24 May: “Scottish Jews have condemned the Church of Scotland’s decision to approve a controversial report on Israel, calling it an unacceptable attack on Judaism.”

But is the Christian critique of the modern State of Israel really “replacement theology” or is the real candidate for replacing Jewish heritage and spiritual understanding to be found elsewhere?

What I believe we are seeing is a deliberately distorted presentation of Christian thinking along with a partial reading of Jewish history and a fossilized view of Judaism itself. All of which serves to divert attention from an urgent call for universal justice that can be found loud and clear in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

A short history of replacement theology

“Replacement theology” (sometimes called “supersessionism” or “fulfillment” theology) derives from the idea that God’s expanded Covenant, through Jesus, embraces the whole world rather than one particular people in one particular place. The expanded Covenant can either be viewed as a positive sharing of Jewish values with the rest of humanity or a doctrine that renders Judaism, and its “Old” Testament, obsolete. It was the latter understanding that led to a long and poisonous history of Church teaching that had murderous implications and created fertile ground for the Nazi’s near genocide of European Jewry during the Second World War.

The last seventy years have witnessed great strides by Christian theologians who have challenged this interpretation of New Testament scripture, understanding Judaism as the crucible of Christianity with its own, ongoing, unique relationship to God. In turn this has led to a blossoming of Christian-Jewish dialogue.

Until now, that is.

Today we see the conflict over Israel/Palestine undoing much good work, and all for the sake of protecting Jewish nationalist interests.

The Church of Scotland’s report provides the most recent case study of the “replacement theology” accusation being deployed to close down debate.

Verheizung an Abraham, Nachkommenschaft so zahlreich, wie die Sterne am Himmel. (A promise to Abraham - descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.) Woodcut from "Die Bibel in Bildern," 1860. Credit: Creative Commons/Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.

“The inheritance of Abraham” charts the Christian understanding of “Land” and “Covenant” using scripture to demonstrate that the original “Promise” to Abraham should no longer be considered grounds for exclusive Jewish control of the Holy Land. The report draws on the New Testament’s interpretation of “Israel” as being, not just the Jews, but all people of God, while the “Promise” of the “Land” becomes a metaphor for the creation of the “Kingdom of God” in all parts of the world.

This is the moment when defenders of the modern State of Israel call “foul.” The attempt to universalize the meaning of “Land,” “Promise,” and “Israel” is seen as once again calling into question the legitimacy of Judaism. The argument has traction (particularly among Christians involved in the communal establishment version of interfaith dialogue) for the very reason that Zionism has been immensely successful in conflating itself with Judaism.

It works like this: If you call into question the Biblical foundation of Jewish claims to the Holy Land, then you undermine the right of Jews today for national self-determination in their historic homeland. Universalizing the Covenant means attacking a central element of historic and modern Jewish identity (or at least the Zionist conception of it). So, the Church of Scotland, and others, quickly find themselves accused of jeopardizing decades of post-Holocaust interfaith reconciliation.

An evolving Jewish understanding

One reason why this attack on Christian theology is so wrong-headed, from a Jewish perspective, is that it fails to recognize Judaism’s own development both within Biblical scripture and across two thousand years of diaspora living.

The truth of the matter is, we Jews have been “replacing” or at least “developing” our theology of “Promise,” “Land,” and “Covenant” for the last three millennia.

This evolution in Jewish thinking was happening throughout the Biblical period and long before the New Testament brought a further layer of (Jewish) understanding to the meaning of the human relationship with God.

Micah 6:8. Credit: Creative Commons.

In Hebrew scripture, we move from the family/tribal God of Genesis to the people’s God of Exodus to the God who sets moral conditions on his gifts in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Propriety of the Land clearly becomes conditional on faithfulness to God and the upholding of his law.

The idea that Judaism is a portable religion rooted in faith and ethical action, gained further momentum with the writings of the Prophets. When Micah asks famously “What does the Lord require of you?” the answer was not the blood of thousands of rams killed for Temple sacrifice but instead a core commitment to act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

The genius of the Jewish Diaspora

The Jewish story and the Jewish conception of the Covenant did not stop with the closing chapters of the Hebrew Bible. The Jewish relationship to God and to the Land continued to evolve across two millennia of rabbinic thinking and the continuing development of Jewish spirituality. Our rabbis replaced Temple sacrifice with prayer, study, and ethical action, and the understanding that living on the Land was not integral to the practice of Judaism or Jewish identity. Living in the Diaspora was never second class Judaism.

Jewish teaching saw “Exile” as a metaphysical construction, a theological distancing from the Almighty that had led to a physical dislocation. Exile involved a continuing effort directed at spiritual renewal and return to God. The physical return to the “Land of Israel” was a distant, indefinitely postponed, messianic future, firmly in God’s hands and not ours.

But then came Zionism. A late 19th century variant of middle European ethnic nationalism that successfully weaved a traditional connection to the Land, expressed religiously through festivals and prayer, into a political and colonial project. The upshot has been the creation of a Jewish State that, by its very nature, must privilege its Jewish inhabitants to the detriment of the indigenous Palestinian population and all other non-Jews.

Zionists like to jump back two thousand years as if the whole diaspora experience was a mere detour, a temporary distraction from nationalism, rather than a miraculous achievement of cultural and religious development.

If you are looking for a “replacement theology” that undermines Jewish tradition and religious understanding, and skews Jewish ethics as a result, then look no further than Zionism.

A new path for dialogue

For Christian-Jewish dialogue to have a future, it has to challenge what Marc Ellis has described as the “ecumenical deal” that agrees to take all criticism of the State of Israel off the table. It also has to dismiss claims of “replacement theology” as a deliberate political tactic (a theological “red herring”) that ignores Judaism’s own historic development and its core value of justice. Christian-Jewish interfaith relations will become morally atrophied if Christians feel they must silence themselves on the behavior of the State of Israel to its own minority citizens and those whose land it continues to occupy.

Jews resist Zionism and the denial by Israel of collective human rights. Credit: Creative Commons.

Jews and Christians enjoy tremendous common ground and can build on their shared understanding of a universal God concerned for all of his creation and who demands of us that we love our neighbor and pursue an agenda of justice. Anything done in the name of Christianity or Judaism that is an affront to that calling must be clearly identified or else both traditions are fatally undermined.

Christian partners in Jewish dialogue must acknowledge the very real connection of Judaism with the Holy Land through Jewish prayer, festivals, and sacred mythology. On that basis, Israel should be seen as a “homeland” of Jewish heritage. But that doesn’t mean accepting that Zionism is integral to Judaism or that the Jewish population of Israel has the right to create exclusive rights for itself and deny human rights to others.

The return to Jewish nationalism has led the Jewish people down an ethical cul-de-sac. The history that has taken us to this point needs to be understood and acknowledged but the rightness of its outcome must be challenged. To navigate our way out will require a brave dialogue with the Palestinians that turns Israel from a “Jewish Democracy” to a “Human Democracy.” Meanwhile, we need sympathetic Christian partners who will help us to reclaim the very values that their own faith is built upon.

Robert Cohen is the author of Micah’s Paradigm Shift, a blog about Israel/Palestine and interfaith relations from a United Kingdom and progressive Jewish perspective, where this piece first appeared.


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