Does Jacob Hate Esau?

By Jerome A. Chanes
Monday, October 29, 2012

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.

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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