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Does Jacob Hate Esau?

Jews have traditionally kept non-Jews at arm’s length.  The rabbinic approach to anti-Semitism may be summarized as Halakhah hi b’yadu’a she-Eisav sonei et Yaakov, “It is an established normative principle that Esau hates Jacob” (Tosafos HaShalem: Mesiach Ilmim).  Esau: the anti-Semitic antecedent of Babylonia, Rome, Christendom; anti-Semitism incarnate, immutable, forever.  More than that, the formulation of the rabbinic dictum as a normative principle gave quasi-legal weight to the idea that anti-Semitism was embedded in the DNA of non-Jews and, by extension, impeded normal relationships between Jews and other faith communities.

Relevant Links
Loving Jews, Hating Jews  Alex Joffe, Jewish Ideas Daily. How is it that “the most broadly popular religious group in America today” is the victim of vastly more hate crimes than any other?
Catholics, Jews, and Jewish Catholics  Daniel Johnson, Jewish Ideas Daily. Catholics and Jews alike should welcome a scholarly reappraisal of the most painful chapter in the history of their relationship. Three new books lay the groundwork.
Muslims and Jews in America  Aryeh Tepper, Jewish Ideas Daily. Is genuine investigation into American Muslim attitudes toward Jews being pushed aside in favor of a political agenda that uses Israel as a punching bag?

But is this the case?  Is Jew-hatred the defining characteristic of the relationship?  What about other dynamics, historical and theological, which have informed relations between Judaism and other faiths?  More generally, how does any religion respond to the “Other”? 

Certainly contemporary Christian-Jewish relations emerged not from each group’s abstractly pondering the theological nature of the other but from something much more concrete, the modern manifestation of Esau’s hatred for Jacob.  As with much else, the Holocaust was the defining event.  For Jews it was a searing tragedy, for Christians a theological trauma: something in Christianity had gone horribly wrong.  In the years after World War II, this realization triggered discussion among enlightened Protestant theologians about how Christianity got to such an awful place.  In the early 1960s Catholics joined the conversation, with the Second Vatican Council and the watershed Nostra Aetate serving as significant way-stations in the rejection of millennia-old teachings of contempt. 

But these initiatives were all about how Christians looked at Jews.  What about the obverse side of the coin?  Is the pejorative halakhic category of avodah zarah, imperfectly translated as “idolatry,” still relevant to the Jewish view of other religions?  To what extent can we maintain the traditional dichotomy between Judaism’s exclusive truth and other faiths’ religious falsehoods?  Is the Jewish covenantal experience unique or did God allow for multiple covenants?  If we are to have a coherent religious environment in an increasingly interdependent world, Judaism, like other religions, must re-examine old constructs and shape new paradigms.  English translation: We are not alone, nor ought we to be. 

Comes now the superb Jewish Theology and World Religions, which addresses these questions and many others.  Editors Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Eugene Korn, both well-versed in interfaith matters and theology, have built upon a series of conferences to shape a group of essays that is nothing less than a conspectus of the critical issues that Jews face when relating to Christians and Muslims—and, yes, to Buddhists and Hindus as well. 

Goshen-Gottstein and Korn’s book does not become mired in theology.  Instead, the editors offer two strategic orientations.  The first is theory—doctrine, normative principles, philosophy.  They ask (to take an important example) what halakhah has said, over hundreds of years, about Christianity—and take it from there.  The second point of departure is empirical:  how do we integrate our experience with Christians and Muslims—often hostile and disputative—into a productive Jewish theology that addresses contemporary realities? 

Rare is the anthology of essays that holds together thematically, but this book is a happy exception—well organized, with essays carefully curated.  It moves seamlessly from a general discussion of Jewish philosophical perspectives on pluralism to empirical treatments of Judaism and the “Other” to a series of culminating essays on Judaism and Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.  In the section on Judaism and the “Other,” Stanislaw Krajewski provides a brief, noteworthy meditation on the limits to any believer’s truly knowing another’s religion.  Ruth Langer contributes a brilliant essay on the ways in which memory (in this case, Jewish memory) expresses itself in the immediate religious experience of the daily liturgy, which has been conditioned by adversarial biblical narratives, authoritative rabbinic interpretation, and a history of persecution.  Is the non-Jew a threat to Jewish uniqueness?  From the liturgy, one would think so.  Langer beautifully parses the tension between memory and present-day realities.  

And, lest we forget the encounters of Jews with other religions, discrete chapters intelligently explore historical and theological questions about Judaism and Islam, Hinduism (is it avodah zarah?), and Buddhism (is it “godless”?). 

Among the stellar essays in the book, a true luminary is Korn’s “Rethinking Christianity,” which asks a deceptively simple question: “How do Jews relate normatively to Christians?”  Korn’s essay is a tour-de-force review of the ways in which the rabbinic leadership has viewed Christianity from the time of the earliest theological breaks from and among Jewish Christians after the death of Jesus to the present day.  For the scholarly insider, Korn offers new insights on old debates.  For the newcomer, he provides, in 27 exceptionally concentrated pages, the best single overview of the field, from the Talmud to the 21st century, that I have seen.  This chapter alone is worth the book’s price. 

A basic historical and sociological reality, however, is missing from the book.  In Judaism, unlike other religions, relationships with other faiths have developed along denominational (what is known in American Judaism as “movement”) lines.  Not only does each movement have its own approach to inter-faith relations; even within the American Orthodox movement, for example, there is debate about thresholds and appropriate levels of contact with other religions.  I looked, alas in vain, for an intelligent discussion of how the American Jewish movements view interfaith matters.  The book merely hints at these distinctions, and only in footnotes. 

Further, there is no small amount of ambiguity in the use of the term “pluralism,” a usage that figures prominently in every chapter in the first half of the book.  The term is misused and misapplied.  Eugene Korn, in his introductory essay, talks about “multiple models [of religion] in tension with each other.” Perhaps what Korn and his authors are describing is accurate, but the desired co-existence of differing traditions isn’t pluralism.  Pluralism, a uniquely American phenomenon, is the calibrating and balancing of the needs of majorities, minorities, individuals, and the state.  Pluralism is not co-existence, and it is certainly not a “melting pot”; it’s a cholent.  And pluralism does not characterize the condition of world religions. 

This problem, however, hardly diminishes Korn and Goshen-Gottstein’s analysis of the need for contemporary Jews to look askance at religious exclusivism.  “Esau hates Jacob”?  Perhaps yes, in the never-to-be-forgotten arena of history.  But Jewish Theology and World Religions breaks new ground in our understanding of other faiths from a Jewish perspective.  For this contribution, theologians, halakhists, religious communal leadership, and lay readers should offer prayers of thanksgiving.

Jerome Chanes, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies, CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of four books dealing with Jewish public affairs, history, and sociology.

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TheBigJ on October 29, 2012 at 8:18 am (Reply)
Rome is only descended from Edom and thereby Esau, in the realm of myth, but not in the realm of fact. The Greeks and Romans were purely Aryan people with no connections to the Middle East whatsoever. The notion of them being descended from Edom was a political consideration, used as a means to rally the Jewish people around an 'ancient enemy' that threatened them. By saying that Greece and Rome were descended from Edom, what they were essentially saying was that 'Esau is coming to kill Jacob again, just as he did in the past.' In so doing, they made the conflict a spiritual one, which gave the people hope that God would intervene again as He did in the past.

In earlier times, specifically the Second Temple era, the prime enemy was not Greece/Rome but Egypt. Egypt represented the biggest existential threat to Israel, and the Canaanite city states were Egyptian protectorates. In fact, at one stage, Egypt was in full control of Canaan, and no doubt, used the Canaanite city-states as a means to oppress the people, including the early Hebrews. Therefore, the Torah, being a product of that earlier time, identified the prime enemy as Ham, son of Noah, and Ham was the ancestor not only of Egypt, but also of Babylon, and Assyria (Actually there's a contradiction between the J and P texts concerning the origin of Assyria), as well as the Canaanite nations, all of which were actually Semitic, not Hamitic. The Hittites, Hivites, and Philistines were also identified with Ham, despite the fact that these nations were Aryan. In so doing, the Torah was connecting the political reality of that time, to the cosmic order.
Jerry Blaz on October 30, 2012 at 3:52 am (Reply)
As a group that has lived among other peoples as minorities without a homeland to which Jews could return, and there is a reality and historical memories of 2,000 years of persecutions and discriminations that is part of the Jewish story. Certainly, for any Jew who survived the holocaust period wherever that Jew might have been almost turns the holocaust into the paradigmatic aspect of Jewish history in the diaspora. Actually, the Second Temple period began with Jews under the rule of Persia followed by Greece and Rome and then the great period of exile.

But if we erase this group amnesia, we would remember there were many times when Jews were fairly treated, respected as individuals and were partners in commerce, diplomacy and discourse. Being a minority made it difficult for Jews to retain Jewishness within our specific group, so we had to persevere with our Jewishness. The PesaX Haggadah reflects a Greco-Roman banquet setting that become more and more a siddur for PesaX so that we end the Haggadah with that phrase, siddur PesaX according to its customs.(For that, we call the PesaX feast a "seder" which is a cognate of the word "siddur.")Yet, it is a quintessentially Jewish document.

The Yeshivot began during exile in Babylonia and contineued during the Second Temple period and beyond; it may even have been an adoptation of Babylonian or Persian educational frameworks. When Sa'adya Hagaon wrote the "Tafsir" the first complete Arab translation of the Tanach where some famous Yeshivot still were flourishing in Babylonia, it wasn't for the edification of the Muslim scholars that the "Tafsir" was translated, but to fulfill the needs of Jews who were so integrated into the life of Muslim Babylonia they could no longer read Hebrew text, therefore, with Saadya's work, they could "read" the Book that was so important to them as Jews.

There were other remarkable periods of appreciation of the Jewish presence in many other diasporas, but in the end, we were always reminded of our status as sojourners. So that in the final analysis, while there were times for tears and lamentations, there were times we flourished, but we never were at home. Nevertheless, we kept learning and adding and improving our understanding of our experiences in the light of our traditions as they were refined and developed and shaped in the fires of many foreign hearths where we were able to warm ourselves. And we will continue to learn and maintain our religious civilization as it evolves and as Jews learn and understand that nothing Jewish should be foreign to us, even as we sojourn in foreign lands, and even though it may be possible, we still hesitate to return finally to our home.
charles hoffman on October 30, 2012 at 9:01 pm (Reply)
Make a list of countries or nations among whom Jews found themselves during 2000 years of exile; then list those who never mistreated their Jewish minority, never used them as scapegoats, never engaged in repression of Jewish identity or religious freedom.

Those are tho ones who aren't Esav

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