Sunday, November 23, 2008

A disturbing book

The following remarks pertain to a recent volume by the Israeli scholar Israel Jacob Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages" (University of California Press, 2006; an English translation of a Hebrew original of 2000).
The central theme of this important book is a challenge to the common perception that Christianity is the daughter of Judaism. Instead, Yuval maintains, both arose in response to historical circumstances: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE. As we know them, the two faiths are siblings.

In keeping with the dominant trend of modern scholarship, Yuval holds that the rabbinical Judaism that took shape in the Mishnah (after 200) and the two Talmuds was essentially a new creation--as was Christianity. More controversially, the Israeli scholar holds that when there are similarities between Christianity and rabbinical Judaism--they are much more numerous than is commonly admitted--they are most likely the result of Jewish borrowing from Christianity. This is what one might expect in the relationship of a minority culture and a majority one, a reality that became evident with the emperor Constantine’s sponsorship of Christianity in the early fourth century: “minority cultures tend to adopt the agenda of the majority culture,” The “one-way influence of Christianity on Judaism” is Yuval's working hypothesis.

With all the recent hoopla about “ethnicity” in contemporary America it is easy to lose sight of this fundamental dynamic. Let us take Mexican Americans in California and Puerto Ricans in New York. In both cases, the Anglo host culture produces overwhelming pressures for assimilation. By the third (or even the second generation), knowledge of Spanish is minimal and North American popular culture is pervasive. Doubtless Yuval has observed a similar process of assimilation in today’s Israel.

In fact, the first indications of acculturation in the Jewish world date back to the closing centuries of the Second Temple period, when the attractions of Hellenism loomed increasingly large. Many Jews--and not just in the diaspora--adopted Greek names and customs. Philo of Alexandria, the greatest Jewish thinker of the period, wrote exclusively in Greek.

To set the scene for his assertions, Yuval employs a somewhat complicated parable chosen from the bible itself. He holds that the Jacob–Esau typology (Gen. 24–32) has been of major importance for Jews’ and Christians’ perception of themselves and each other (as “other”) from antiquity until today. Both Jews and Christians identified themselves with Jacob as the chosen one. For Jews, Esau was Edom (= Rome), and eventually the Christian-Byzantine empire. For Christians, Esau was “the archetype of the Jew” who had allegedly lost his birthright to his younger brother, the Church. In this way Judaism and Christianity came to adopt diametrically opposed interpretations of the same biblical story. The identification with Jacob also entailed the “claim to ownership of the Land of Israel on a divine promise,” which Christians sought to fulfill in the First Crusade by freeing Jerusalem from Muslim domination. In keeping with his overall methodology, Yuval assumes that both interpretations emerged at the same time, after the destruction of the Second Temple, and that the Jewish exegesis embodied in rabbinic Midrash drew upon the Christian one: “the Jewish position is reactive and defensive,” showing apologetic traits.

Yuval maintains that the rabbinic notion of Oral Torah was developed because rabbis feared that otherwise their teachings—like the Written Torah—could be appropriated by Christians and universalized; “[t[the Oral Torah is, in the deepest sense, a Jewish answer to the Christian Torah, the New Testament.” It is true that Christians have never shown any interest in the highly problematic notion of the Oral Torah as the copartner of the Written Torah, but indifference on their part does not exclude the possibility of its adoption by the rabbis as a defensive bulwark.

Yuval highlights significant similarities between Passover and Easter in Jewish and Christian tradition and practice. In particular, he links the theme of redemption to some of the symbolic foodstuffs of the seder table. In his discussion of the Jewish–Christian controversy in the Middle Ages (chapters 3–6), the author develops the argument that Christian accusations against Jews were based on a misinterpretation and representation of actual Jewish practices and beliefs. Not only was the roasting of the Passover sacrifice associated with the annihilation of Esau/Christianity, but the burning of the leaven could be seen as a desecration of the Host. The theme of vengeful redemption, which was already part of the Passover rite, was seen by Christians as an expression of Jewish hatred of humankind in general and of Christianity and its messiah in particular. Yuval regards the afikoman matzah at the end of the Passover seder as a symbol of messianic redemption, as “a kind of Jewish Host,” the outcome of a “Jewish internalization of Christian ritual language.” Thus there flourished a covert dialogue among symbols, gestures, and ceremonies--a dialogue suffused with polemics, hostility, and feelings of superiority over the respective “Other.” For this reason, “the inner context of the ceremonies is completely different in each religion. “

The second main part of the book concentrates on Ashkenazic Jewry, the field of Yuval’s particular expertise. “How did medieval Jewish apologetics deal with Christianity’s standing as the dominant and successful religion? What religious formulation enabled the Jews to adhere to their faith in the election of Israel despite the political reality that every day seemed to demonstrate that God had hidden his face from them? These questions must be understood in the broad context of the connections and interrelations between Jews and Christians. . . .

“Gerson Cohen . . . noted the ‘blatant contrast between the election of Israel and their subjection on earth,’ a contradiction aggravated in times of religious persecution. To explain this, Jews interpreted the harsh political reality as temporary, postponing its resolution until the messianic era. Hence, the events anticipated in the messianic era serve as the key to understanding Jewish apologetics in the present. How did the Jews portray the long-awaited victory over Christianity? How did they envision the future routing of the Gentiles?”

Yuval points out that much historical scholarship has been devoted to studying the expressions of Christian hatred for Jews, but relatively little to its Jewish counterpart. For example, he cites texts incorporated in the Morning Prayer of Yom Kippur. “These are texts that demonstrate the abyss of hostility and hatred felt by medieval Jews towards Christians. And we have here not only hatred, but an appeal to God to kill indiscriminately and ruthlessly, alongside a vivid description of the anticipated horrors to be brought down upon the Gentiles. These pleas are formulated in a series of verbs--”swallow them, shoot them, lop them off, make them bleed, crush them, strike them down” and so forth. One might expect such strong language as a response to persecution, but as Yuval points out such invective goes back to late antiquity, and is a constant, even in periods of relative peace between Christians and Jews.

This material is disturbing. Yet there is more, for Yuval suggests that the Christian blood libel of the Middle Ages may be based on Jewish martyrs’ killing of their own children. The Jewish martyrdom chronicles of 1096 present self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of one’s loved ones to avoid apostasy as Kiddush ha-Shem (sanctification of God). Christians who heard of such acts were horrified by them, citing them as evidence that Jews were a murderous people. Yuval sees these tragic events as the source of the blood libel and the accusation of ritual murder that was most widespread from the twelfth century onward. The blood libel represented the distorted Christian view of Jewish martyrdom: according to the Christian version, Jews would kill Christian children, when in reality they killed their own. The dissemination of the blood libel in the years after the First Crusade may thus reflect Christian knowledge of the Jewish martyrdom acts—or rather rumors about Jews sacrificing their own children for the purposes of vengeful redemption.

In the final chapter, Yuval seeks to show how Jewish messianic ideas associated with the “end of the millennium” (the Christian year 1240 corresponds to the year 5000 in the Jewish calendar) had an impact on the Christian world. France and Germany were the centers of messianic ferment at that time, and calculations similar to the Jewish ones are found in Christian sources, though the chronology suggests that the influence traveled from Christian writers to Jewish ones. Jewish apocalyptic recapitulates three features of Christian Joachimism: the idea of the millennium, the conception of history of the Six Days of Creation, and the tripartite division of history. As Norman Cohn has shown, all these ideas have deep Christian roots.

To be sure, the Jewish messianic idea was connected with the hope for Jewish resettlement of the land of Israel, whereas Christians sought to appropriate the Holy Land for themselves, undertaking the Crusades for that purpose. The different messianic expectations show a “tragic asymmetry”: Jews anticipated the destruction of Christianity while Christians expected the conversion of Jews to their own religion: “the Jewish Messiah is the Christian Antichrist, and vice versa.”


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