What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 28-29.

[Symposium Contents]

David Novak

The twentieth century has witnessed the worst and the best in Jewish-Christian relations. On the negative side of the ledger is the Holocaust. Even if responsibility for the systematic murder of six million Jews lies with the anti-Christian ideology of the Nazis, the fact is that traditional Christian anti-Judaism was easily appropriated by that ideology, and too many Christians either supported the murder of the Jews or did nothing about it when much could have been done against it. But on the positive side of the ledger, in the postwar era Jews and Christians have been talking and working together in a constructive and wholly unprecedented way. Why did the worst and the best emerge in the same century? How one answers this question will suggest an agenda for good Jewish-Christian relations in the twenty-first century.

The world Jews and Christians now inhabit is neither Jewish nor Christian. That has led Jews and Christians interested in surviving in this world to become more genuinely religious for the sake of their own identity. This must be seen from the background of a more startling fact: in this past century, especially during its latter half, the political power of Jews has grown at the same time the political power of Christians has shrunk. Our culture, which formerly could be considered "Christian," no longer looks to Christianity for its justification. This has come as a great shock to many Christians, and it largely explains the worst and the best of the ways Christians have related to Jews.

At worst, Christians have blamed Jewish support of secularization for their loss of power, and some of them have turned to anti-Semitism as a way to restore the anti-Judaism that once was an element of Christian social and cultural hegemony. But the Holocaust showed that modern, racial anti-Semitism not only does not need religious anti-Judaism, but is actually intent on destroying the Jewish roots of Christianity. Without those roots, Christianity cannot survive.

At best, the full realization of what the Holocaust meant has influenced Christians to seek out Judaism and Jews, and to come to understand that the inherent theological rivalry between Judaism and Christianity cannot be overcome by Christian defeat of Judaism and the Jewish people. Today, Christian scholars learn Judaism from Jewish scholars and thinkers, along the way discovering just who the Jews really are. The results, both intellectual and political, have been impressive.

Despite the Holocaust, Jewish power in the secular world has grown enormously. Proof of this is how well the Jewish people survived the Holocaust, with a greater determination to be more active and less vulnerable in the world. Jews have not only become equal citizens in Western democracies, they have become leading citizens. And, of course, the reestablishment of the State of Israel has given Jews a political presence in the world they have not had since biblical times. In the course of all this, many Jews have looked to the increasing secularity of the world as the source of their newly won power. Jews of this mindset are usually anti-Christian, since they regard Christians as the primary group wanting the Jews to return to the ghetto—or worse.

However, an increasing number of Jews are now realizing that it is problematic to look to secularism for our survival. Secularism has no need for Judaism, for what makes Jews Jewish in the first place. It is, therefore, a recipe for our disappearance—either with a bang or a whimper. That is why more and more Jews are turning inward to the religious content of the Jewish tradition to justify their continued identity. And, while some of these returning Jews look at Christianity and Christians as an ancient foe, others are beginning to realize that Christians are facing challenges similar to ours, and for the same reasons. Christians and Jews alike are the new exiles of the contemporary world, struggling with how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

I think Jewish-Christian relations in the next century and millennium will grow in breadth and depth if Jews and Christians accept that neither community can or should control the secular realm. Christians cannot and should not attempt to regain a world they have lost, and Jews cannot and should not try to gain a world they never had. When Jews and Christians are able to say more and more "I am a stranger on earth, do not hide from me Your commandments" (Psalm 119:19), they will find how much they need each other to be able to keep these commandments here and now.

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.