Over the past several decades Christians have been rethinking their relationship to Jews and Judaism. This has been prompted, most obviously, by the horrors of the Holocaust and the recognition that centuries of Christian anti-Judaism and persecution of Jews helped lay the groundwork for it. Most notably, both the Catholic Church and most mainline Protestant churches have issued official statements repenting of Christendom’s long, sordid history of anti-Judaism. They have also, albeit not always quite as clearly, affirmed the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and largely renounced efforts to target Jews for conversion.
This sea change in Christian-Jewish relations has been accompanied by some provocative theological revisionism. Both in official documents and in the work of individual theologians, Christians have struggled to articulate a “non-supersessionist” version of their faith. This raises a host of thorny theological issues, particularly about what it means to affirm Jesus as savior while respecting the covenant Jews already have with God.
Jews have had far less reason to engage in this kind of theological soul-searching, most obviously because they were the ones on the receiving end of Christian hate and persecution. They don’t face the same obvious need to change their inherited theology or practice in light of improved Christian-Jewish relations. This is also in part because Judaism has, historically, been less inclined to make universalistic (some would say totalitarian) claims than Christianity since it has never taught that everyone has to convert to Judaism to be “saved.” Generally, the Jewish position seems to have been that the primary obligation of non-Jews is to follow the universal moral law.
Jewish theologian Michael Kogan thinks, however, that Jews should revisit their inherited views of Christianity and embrace a more positive evaluation. In his book Opening the Covenant he argues that Jews should view Christianity as, in effect, a new revelation from the God of Israel, one by which God has acted to establish a covenant with gentiles.
Kogan argues that Jews should acknowledge that, through Jesus and his interpreters (preeminently St. Paul), billions of non-Jews have been brought into a saving relationship with the God of Israel. This can be seen as a partial fulfillment of the promise that through the family of Abraham “all nations of the earth will be blessed.” Kogan thus wants to push beyond the traditional position that gentiles are saved by following the moral law (or the Noahide Laws) and affirm Christianity as a new revelation of Israel’s God.
In line with this, he contends that Jews can regard Jesus as not only a great Jewish teacher or prophet, but as the means by which God has acted to incorporate gentiles into God’s covenant. This doesn’t mean that Jews should be come Christians–on the contrary, Jews are already in a saving relationship with God and have no need to do anything more than live by the light they have already received. Christianity, he says, is a revelation specifically for gentiles.
Implied by Kogan’s argument is that Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah as Christians have long claimed. He spends a chapter summarizing various ideas about what the Messiah would be like that were circulating in the late BCE/early CE period. Contrary to what Christians sometimes argue, there was no single Jewish understanding of the Messiah that Jesus could be shown to have fulfilled (or overturned, as is sometimes maintained). The Messiah was variously portrayed as a Davidic king, a supernatural agent of God, or an Aaronic priest. In some cases, it was held that the messianic age would be brought about through God’s direct intervention, without the need for a “Messiah” per se. Early Christianity can be seen as one form of messianic Judaism, jostling for recognition and legitimacy alongside others, but there are no agreed-upon criteria for “messiahhood,” so to speak, which Jesus can be shown to have met.
Jesus has not brought redemption to Israel, Kogan says. The messianic age has not arrived. What Jesus has done, however, is “brought the salvific word of Israel’s God to the gentiles . . . helping Israel to fulfill its calling to be a blessing to all peoples” (p. 68). Kogan thinks that Jews can affirm this without abandoning their identity as Jews.
Underlying much of Kogan’s argument is a pluralistic theology of religions, but one that differs from some popular forms of pluralism. Often pluralists say that the various religions are humanly constructed attempts to reach the divine. But Kogan insists that revelation is a non-negotiable element of Jewish (and Christian) faith. It’s true that revelation is conditioned by human response; it is filtered and refracted through human language and concepts. But it is still God reaching out to humanity to reveal the divine self and will.
What makes Kogan’s view pluralistic is that he takes both Judaism and Christianity to constitute true–although partial–revelations from God. Both Jews and Christians can enter into a saving relationship with the God of Israel through their respective faiths. (He suggests that this applies to other traditions too–at least the “higher” religions–though developing a full-blown pluralistic theory of religion is outside the scope of this book.)
Kogan even goes so far as to suggest, drawing on Paul’s metaphor of the olive tree, that Christians and Jews are both branches of one Israel. They can, and should, be co-witnesses to God and work together toward realizing God’s reign of peace and justice. They have no need to try to convert each other, but Jews and Christians can have their faith mutually enriched and their understanding of God and what God requires deepened through dialogue. (Here Kogan echoes Christian theologians like Paul van Buren, Roy Eckhardt, and Clark Williamson.)
It’s not my place to say what Judaism’s theological self-understanding should be, but as a Christian I welcome Kogan’s positive assessment of Christianity as something other than a heretical mash-up of Judaism and paganism. I still think Christians have work to do in understanding their faith in a way that can truly affirm the ongoing validity of Judaism. Many Christians are uneasy with a full-blown religious pluralism and often take refuge in an “inclusivist” view that, while well intentioned, can be condescending toward other faiths (e.g., Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christians”). For what it’s worth, my hunch is that a suitably modified inclusivism will probably end up looking a lot like one of the more plausible versions of pluralism (such as Kogan’s).
Christians may also balk at Kogan’s claim that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah, but can we really continue to maintain this while affirming God’ ongoing covenant with Jews? Perhaps one viable approach to this is the one suggested by Tyron Inbody. He says that both Christians and Jews, if they’re being honest, must recognize that God’s kingdom has not arrived in its fullness. Both are awaiting the same Kingdom–God’s universal reign of shalom. But whether or not Jesus is the one who will reign as Messiah in that kingdom is ultimately an eschatological question that we can’t definitively settle now.
All these questions notwithstanding, I greatly enjoyed Kogan’s book, which provides (for Christians at least) a much-needed perspective on the Christian-Jewish dialogue.