Skip to content

Judaism and the State of Israel

John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited is helpful on many levels, but one of the most imporant points he makes therein is the way in which Christianity brought about what we know today as Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today was not around in the time of Paul and Jesus. Rather it is precisely the relationship between the church and the Jewish people in the centuries after Jesus that have brought about what we know as Judaism.

Unlike how we have come to think of Judaism, the Judaism that was present in the time of the early church did not automatically consider belief in the messiah a reason to be excluded from the synagogue, nor was it closed off to gentiles. Rather Judaism in the first century was a decidedly missional religion (cf. Matt 23:15; Acts 2:9-11). Only after the church became decidedly identified as a gentile movement did the hardening of the lines between Judaism and Christianity truly take hold and culminate in the sort of ethnic definition of Judaism we know today. Yoder describes the phenomenon in this way:

It may be  that ‘Christians’ progressively differentiated themselves from from Jews in order not to suffer persecution, and thereby diverted the anger of Gentiles toward the non-messianic Jews. Yet this in itself would not explain Jews’ abandonment of their missionary openness. In fact it could well have had the opposite effect. Jews no less than ‘Christians’ could argue that they had no secrets, that thier God was for everyone, that their law was reasonable, open to others, as their thinkers were doing at that time anyway.

In any case the outcome is that Judaism will be an ethnic enclave, less missionary than before, at some points in fact practically discouraging the accession of Gentiles to membership in the synagogue. This abandonment of missionary perspective on the part of Judaism is an adjustment not to the Gentile world but to Christianity. Non-missionary Judaism is a part of, a product of Christian history. For Jews to renounce mission means that they have been contextually ‘Christianized.’ They have accepted their limited slot within a context where telling the Gentiles about the God of Abraham is a function left to others and the Jews are willing to leave it that way. (p. 153-54)

The Christianization of Judaism ends in reducing Judaism to the non-missionary religion of an ethnic group. It turns the formerly universal message of the God of Abraham who created all nations and peoples, to the provincial religion of a sectarian enclave. However, this is only the begining. Yoder describes the culmination of the event of the Christianization of Judaism:

If the abandonment of openness to the Gentiles was the first stage of Judaism’s being influenced by Chistianity, one of the latest is the acceptance of the Jews of their assimilation into western pluralism. Protestants, Catholics and Jews are seen as the three equally legitimate forms of moral theism called ‘the Judaeo-Christian heritage.’ In some cases this has lead to a degree of theological assimilation, but the same tirpartite division of labour within pluralism can also be appealed to by Jews (or Protestants) who are much more orthodox. (p. 154)

The abandonment of missionalit culminates in the assimilation of Judaism into the tapestry of western pluralism, and specifically into the ideological construct known as the ‘Judaeo-Christian heritage.’ Where does this finally leave us?

The culmination of the Christianization of Judaism is the development of Zionism. Zionism creates a secular democratic nation state after the model of the nation states of the West. It defines Jews, for the purpose of building the state, in such a way that it makes no difference if most of them are unbelieving and unobservant. In America the Jews are ‘like a church’ with a belief structure, lifestyle commitments, and community meetings; in Israel Judaism is a nation and the belief dimension no longer matters. To be born in the State of Israel makes one less a Jew, in the deep historical sense of the term, than to be born in a ghetto. This is of course exacerbated by the fact that the Zionist state has taken on the challenge of governing subject populations who are not even ethnically Jewish. Committed Judaism, i.e. people who visibly order their lives around the Torah, is a minority sect in Israel just as are the Christians. (p. 154)

The upshot of all this is that the form of life embodied in and fostered by the secular state of Israel is the polar opposite of what the deep historical definition of Judaism entails. In fact, it is a betrayal of it. As such, support for the state of Israel cannot be construed as support for the Jewish people, let alone Judaism as a faith. Indeed supporting Israel should be seen as fundamentally anti-Jewish in nature. The state of Israel is, in fact the antithesis of the Judaism from the time of Jeremiah through the second century. To support the state of Israel is to continue the Christian mistake that began with the Jewish-Christian schism. Indeed, supporting the state of Israel is the most anti-Jewish act Christians can take, as it constitutes a hyperextension of the Christian (indeed, Constantinian) disciplining of Judaism. To the extent that the church supports Israel (as much of it rabidly does) the church commits itself to a most despicable form of anti-Judaism that should be repudiated by all.

12 Comments

  1. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Damn straight.

    Friday, September 11, 2009 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  2. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    I have read and appreciate much of Yoder’s work though I have not read his ‘Jewish-Christian Schism’ (JCS) yet. It may be that what I see here as overstatements, exaggerations and hyperbole may be his, or yours, (or just my own misunderstanding). First: “It is precisely the relationship between the church and the Jewish people in the centuries after Jesus that have brought about what we know as Judaism.” Certainly the relationship between the “Church” and Israel is one important factor among many others spanning centuries of interaction. Judaism has/had also been influenced by Roman and Greek culture, Islam, pagan and Islamic N. Africa and Egypt, to name a few. Of course deciding just what “Judaism” is, is as complex as deciding what “Christianity,” or the “church” is, and this difficulty often leads one into convenient and understandable (blogorific) generalizations (for all of us). I will resist going paragraph by paragraph, but allow me one more critique: “The state of Israel is, in fact the antithesis of the Judaism…To the extent that the church supports Israel (as much of it rabidly does) the church commits itself to a most despicable form of anti-Judaism that should be repudiated by all.” This seems overstated to me. I am not sure someone with a profound understanding of both Judaism in 600 BCE, and contemp. Israel/Judaism would make such an assertion (for pete’s sake Israel can’t even agree on what a ‘Jew’ is! Ask my wife!), however, because of my respect for Yoder I will allow him a chance to do so when I read his book. I am an ardent critic of the state of Israel, and Israeli’s themselves are seriously divided about most crucial issues; even further though, the “church’s” (whatever you mean by that) involvement in state politics, either supporting, denouncing, or concordat-ing is much too problematic and complex to support the assertions made in the last paragraph. Obliged and blessings, Daniel

    Friday, September 11, 2009 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  3. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    “Judaism that was present in the time of the early church did not automatically consider belief in the messiah a reason to be excluded from the synagogue, nor was it closed off to gentiles”

    I am no expert, but I am not sure that belief in a messiah is reasons for exclusion even today. Last time I was back home in NYC for example, there was a huge party, with long caravans of cars blasting yiddish music and buses and RV’s plastered with the face of this Jewish rabbi who these Jewish folks consider to be the Messiah. He has a large following. And these folks are missional about it too. They are not shy about talking about it or trying to get you to come learn more at some teaching center. So, even today, there are Jews who a messianic. I think the rabbi’s name was Schneerson. These were Hassidic Jews. There were a LOT of them too.

    Friday, September 11, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Permalink
  4. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    Good point Andy. There have been many messianic movements in Judaism, all of them, to my knowledge have been occasion for contention. Schneerson has many ardent believers in his messianic credentials, both here and to a lesser degree in israel and Ukraine, and it has sadly caused a rancorous and serious split in the lubavitchers, perhaps the most serious since Sabbatai Zevi, though Rabbi Schneerson does not share Zevi’s theology or eschatology. It may eventually lead to a split along the lines of protest. Cath, split. To my knowledge, belief in Schneerson does not yet preclude communal worship, yet, but i fear it will come to that. I would encourage anyone interested in the dynamics between Christianity and Judaism to take a look at Franz Rosenzweigs writings (particularly ‘The Star of Redemption’), Gershom Scholem, his friend Walter Benjamin, and the latter Derrida, and of course Emmanuel Levinas (particularly “Is It Righteous to Be,” one of my top 10 pics of any sort), and of course Yoder’s work that Halden suggests. Obliged, Daniel.

    Friday, September 11, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Andy, of course that’s true. However, I don’t think one could too easily today believe that Jesus is the Messiah and continue to fellowship with non-messianic Jews. However, in Paul’s time and for a good long time afterwards, that was indeed possible. Therein I think, lies the difference.

    Friday, September 11, 2009 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  6. James wrote:

    The point about Israel is not as much of a novelty as Yoder, or maybe just this post, seems to imply. Tons of ultra-orthodox Jews do not support the state of Israel, and this has been true since the development of Zionism in the late 19th century. To ally with these anti-Zionists is to ally not with “true Judaism as it has existed forever” but with a more recent formation of orthodoxy, which is more renowned for intolerance than it is with any form of Christian love (I was recently in Israel and saw this in action). The Church, I believe, owes Israel its support. If not for millennia of ecclesiastical anti-Semitism, Israel might not be necessary, but unfortunately it is. It would be profoundly uncharitable for the Church to say, “We didn’t much like you when you lived among us, and we don’t support you now that you have your own state, either. We supported Christian bigots for centuries and now we will support anti-Zionist intolerant ultra-Orthodoxy, but the last thing we can abide is that you should live in peace and tolerance.”

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:46 am | Permalink
  7. d barber wrote:

    You (and Yoder, of course) should take care to avoid the opposition between “universal mission” and “ethnic enclave.” After all, this opposition is one produced by Christianity. Thus, when Yoder speaks of the “Christianization of Judaism” he contradicts himself, insofar as he maintains that “Judaism” is a product of Christianity — thus Judaism cannot preexist Christianity, much less be Christianized.

    In other words, even in this text of Yoder’s (which i really like), it’s important not to turn “Judaism” — once again — into a point of comparison for Christianity, by which Christianity creates its own identity. For instance, the diasporic nature of Judaism implies that there is no either/or between Christian universalism and nation-statehood.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  8. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    “For instance, the diasporic nature of Judaism implies that there is no either/or between Christian universalism and nation-statehood.”

    Would you elaborate on this a bit?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 6:45 am | Permalink
  9. d barber wrote:

    Well, looking at this line of mine again, I think it may sound like one could have both/and. When in fact i meant that diaspora means it is not necessary to choose one or the other.

    My point was that there is present here a pattern of thought that tends to say that Judaism, because it is not universalist (as Christian mission is), is therefore an ethnic identity. And that to be an ethnic identity is to be on the way to being a nation-state (in this case Israel).

    Diaspora of course is not bound up in the nation-state, and the sort of hybridity that it involves makes it irreducible to any universalism, at least where this universalism belongs to the Christian genealogy. (Of course Yoder has his own use of the diasporic model, and of Jewish existence being “more universal” than Roman empire, etc,all of which is interesting but is also the exception that proves the rule, no?)

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 7:41 am | Permalink
  10. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Hi D.

    Thanks for elaborating. “An ethnic identity is to be on the way to being a nation-state.” I am not sure Yoder would agree with this. But that is a hermeneutical question about Yoder. I would question it on the grounds that the nation-state is a constructed identity that overcomes all other loyalties like ethnicity, and makes a new ethnicity or a new tribalism that is bound up with techniques to police those boundaries (literally, a la Foucault). So ethnicity is not a precondition for nation-states. It is a hindrance actually( would point for example, to Iraq and the ethnic tension there…it is a hindrance to the larger nation-building project). What would you say to this?

    Assuming you have read Yoder’s work on the Jewish/Christian Schism: Do you think Yoder would agree with your statement that “Diaspora . . . is not bound up in the nation-state, and the sort of hybridity that it involves makes it irreducible to any universalism, at least where this universalism belongs to the Christian genealogy”?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  11. d barber wrote:

    I agree that Yoder would not agree wrt ethnicity = nation-state. I was responding more to the arc that Halden creates, whereby “true Judaism” = up through 2nd century ce, and the opposite of this is the Israeli state, making the becoming-ethnic of Judaism (in response to Christianity) the mediator.

    Yet while I don’t think Yoder would assent to the equation of ethnicity and nation-state, and while i do think he sees the diasporic nature of Judaism (as he valorizes it) positively … I still think there remains the issue of ethnicity as resistance to universalism. One can see Judaism’s affirmation of its irreducibly ethnic character, in other words, as a resistance to Christian universalism (following the work of Boyarin here). So though I do think Yoder would broadly agree with my statement about diaspora (as you ask), I’m not sure that he would see it in the way I would wish, which is to valorize ethnicity.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  12. d barber wrote:

    By the way, I’m in agreement on Foucault.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site