Friday, June 15, 2007

Berger v. Stern on Interfaith Dialogue II

Dr. David Berger is back from a trip to Israel and sent me the following to post:

Let me say first of all that I am very grateful for the supportive remarks by several commenters regarding my exchange with Rabbi Eliyahu Stern in The Jewish Week. Some question was raised regarding my observation that I had made an argument against Christian proselytizing in a paper delivered more than half-a-year ago at a meeting with Presbyterians. The question was whether or not this is consistent with my general posture of disapproval of telling Christians how to define their own faith. Let me add that because of both the venue and the theological content of the paper, which dealt with conversion and proselytizing in Judaism and Christianity, I asked R. Aharon Lichtenstein whether or not I should accept the invitation. In light of the possibility that this would help to discourage missionizing, he unequivocally encouraged me to go ahead. Here then is the relevant section of that paper.
As long ago as 1983, I expressed strong opposition to Jewish efforts to instruct Christians about what to believe regarding their own religion, and I have repeated this position on numerous subsequent occasions. I confessed, however, that with respect to missionizing, “even Jews who hesitate most about intervention in the internal affairs of Christianity have some mixed feelings.” I went on to say that “the Jewish mandate to protect Jews from conversion is no less a religious requirement than any Christian mandate to convert them, and, although my basic sympathies are with the ‘non-interventionists,’ in the case of aggressive missionizing aimed specifically at Jews, the overriding principle of pikkuah nefesh, or danger to life (including spiritual life), may well prevail.”[1] In short, if I could persuade a Christian uncertain of his or her position regarding mission to the Jews that proper Christian belief should affirm the possibility of salvation for unconverted Jews, I would try to do this.

Nonetheless, I do not regard honest advocates of proselytizing who adhere to the harshest position regarding Jewish salvation as evil in any sense. Thus, I take the position that someone who has declared war on me and my people is nonetheless a fine person whom I can embrace as a friend in other contexts. There is, of course, an emotional tension in this position, and I ask myself whether an argument for Jewish exceptionalism can be formulated that does not impinge on Christian doctrine. I think it possible that this question can be answered in the affirmative. Christians in the modern world, including those with exclusivist views of salvation, definitively reject coercive methods, whether physical or economic, to enforce conformity to Christian belief and practice, and they do this not only because such methods would be ineffective but because they abhor them in principle. This appears to mean that even saving another’s soul does not outweigh all competing considerations. One who refrains from religious coercion recognizes that the apparently transcendent benefit does not outweigh the harm done to the coercer’s moral personality, to that of his or her collective, or to civil society as a whole, not to speak of the immediate suffering of the presumed beneficiary.

In light of these considerations, we are now in a position to ask if there is any moral harm inflicted by non-coercive proselytizing. It can certainly damage, even poison, intergroup relations, and it renders respectful dialogue about religious matters next to impossible. These concerns apply to proselytizing directed at any group; the question is whether they are serious enough to set aside the salvific advantage of conversion to Christianity. At the very least, they may persuade Christians who believe that the other party’s salvation is not at stake to eschew active missionizing.

In dealing with Jews, the moral objections to conversionary efforts increase exponentially. First, even in an open society, there is a tinge of pressure, if not genuine coercion, when members of a majority religion carry out sustained campaigns to convince the minority to abandon its faith. Eighteen years ago, the New York Times published a letter in which I objected to their accepting advertisements from “Jews for Jesus” containing biblical prooftexts for Christian doctrines. Setting aside the well-known issue of the ethically objectionable misappropriation of Jewish symbols, the letter argued that publishing such religious polemic puts a Jewish respondent in an untenable position. Jews would either have to explain in a counter-ad why the verses in question cannot legitimately be understood christologically, which “would pollute the atmosphere of interfaith relations and create concrete dangers for the Jewish minority,” or they would have to remain silent, thus accepting “a quasi-medieval position of being bombarded by public attacks on their faith without opportunity for candid response.”[2]

Second, the history of Christian treatment of Jews is genuinely relevant to this moral calculus. The Jewish community reacts to missionary efforts by Christians through the prism of crusades, Inquisition, blood libels, accusations of host desecration and well poisoning, depictions of Jews as instruments of the devil, and assorted massacres. This reaction is not merely understandable; it is thoroughly legitimate. The Jewish people managed to survive these religiously motivated efforts to destroy it, but contemporary efforts to wipe it out by kinder means are tainted by this history. Like it or not, the Christian missionary to the Jews is continuing the work of Count Emicho, Vincent Ferrer, Torquemada, and Chmielnicki. “Jews for Jesus” can proclaim as loudly and as often as they wish that these persecutors of Jews were not Christians, but there is no avoiding the fact that they acted and were perceived as acting in the name of Christianity. Even if proselytizing other groups is appropriate, proselytizing Jews is arguably not.

Let me end more softly by returning to my anti-interventionist mode. In a contemporary context, it is a matter of the first importance to recognize that belief in eschatological verification is very different from mission. I have made this point in several essays, but it bears repetition here. Participants in dialogue often affirm that even the assertion that your faith will be vindicated at the end of days constitutes morally objectionable triumphalism. I regard this position as itself morally objectionable. Both Jews and Christians are entitled to believe that their respective religions are true in a deep and uncompromising sense, and that this truth will become evident to all the world in the fullness of time.

[1] “Jewish-Christian Relations: A Jewish Perspective,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20 (1983): 17-18.
[2] “Jews for Jesus Ad Poses Painful Choices,” The New York Times, January 9, 1988, p. 26.

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