Steven Katz on Judaism and Christianity – Part 1

The Encounter With Christianity
(Katz on Christianity – Part 1)

For the past three years, as Steve Katz has taken us from the time of Ezra to the rebellion against Rome, it was clear that the encounter with Christianity would be a seminal point in his multi-year lecture series. And so, perhaps, it was fitting that, shortly after the secular millennium, he embarked on a two-weekend presentation aimed at understanding the philosophical and theological underpinnings of a religion that has deeply influenced our lives, but that few of us really understand or know.

Jews have discussions about Jewish distinctions from Christianity, Katz pointed out, that are often based on limited conceptions. Most often, these comments are usually that Christianity says one thing about the Messiah and Judaism something else.

Foundations of Dialogue

In a sense, this trivializes the distinctions and does not lead to a deeper understanding of each other. Because, he said, the usual understanding of Messianism is actually the last thing on the Jewish-Christian agenda. Jews and Christians don’t disagree that Jesus is the Messiah. Instead, they disagree on what the conditions of Messianism are, what Messianism means, what the Messiah is meant to do. And that, in turn, is a reflection of an entire theological universe.

The Christian idea of the Messiah is the result of an enormous theological rethinking of Judaism. The building blocks come from Judaism, but are turned and reconstructed into novel elements that change everything else.

He contextualized this rethinking within the historical framework he’d been building, particularly the development of sects around the time of the Maccabean state the revolt against Rome.

Historical Framework

Christianity is a Jewish phenomenon, he noted. It started out as a sect among the Jewish people in the land of Israel. Initially, it had the same aspirations as the other Jewish sects of the period, which was freedom from Roman domination and the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Jesus probably lived from 3 B.C.E. to 30 CE. (It is thought that the calendar, formulated several hundred years later, had miscalculated the date of his birth). This was a period of tremendous turbulence in Israel and throughout the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana had come to an Augustus was succeeded by tyrants such as Tiberius and Caligula. Israel suffered dramatically under these emperors. Taxation was increased and the Jewish king was dethroned. Except for the years of Agrippa II (41-44), there was only a Jewish governor. The Roman soldiers were everywhere, brutalizing people and mocking beliefs and the situation grew worse as the first century unfolded.

It was in this context that various groups developed. For example, the Qumran group rejected Romans and the Jewish city and formed their own community by the Dead Sea. Another group, the Zealots, led by a man named Menachem, led the revolt of 66-70. They decided that liberation meant violence against Rome and tried to drive Rome out through guerilla warfare. The revolt turned out to be a catastrophe. There were the Pharisees, who were to become the rabbis. And then there were the Jewish Christians.

Some have said that the first century was a messianic century. In addition to the Zealots and early Christians, Josephus mentions a messianic pretender put to death by the Romans and an Egyptian Messiah came to Jerusalem in 50 and was crushed.

Misconceptions of Jesus

A common mistake when considering Christianity, noted Katz, is to focus on Jesus. He noted that in the last hundred years, Jewish writers have taken to writing about Jesus. Before that, during times such as the Inquisition, such inquiry was not safe; although there was a medieval book of tales that painted Christianity in a hostile light and Jesus as a failed folk hero. This book led to–or embodied–many negative Jewish traditions about Jesus. In the last hundred years, however, Jesus is usually conceived in a modern form, usually reform rabbi by anticipation.

Whatever he was, noted Katz, he was not a reform rabbi. Instead, he was from a world of ideas and concepts far removed from our time. He also noted that efforts to find the “Jewish Jesus” are interesting but irrelevant for relating to Christianity. Instead, the Jesus of interest is the Jesus of Christian theology.

A key point is that Jesus did not create Christianity. The early Christians did. First the early church in the first century, then the church fathers in the middle ages evolved the definition. So all the searching for the historical Jesus makes no sense in this context.

A biographer once said that the biography of Jesus was written before he as born. In that sense, he was a Jew fulfilling prophecies, as the concept of a Messiah and salvation was a Jewish concept. There was nothing like it in the Greco-Roman world. (There was a slight hint in Hessia, but, Katz noted, the Hessians probably heard about it from the Jews.)

The story of the life of Jesus runs together prophecies from the Hebrew Bible. The church calls it the theology of promise and fulfillment. All of the promises, the prophecies, are from the Hebrew Bible. For example, the prophets said that Jesus would come to Jerusalem riding on a donkey and so he does. The people would say “hosanna” and so they do.

There is also an elaborate effort to create a genealogy since the Messiah is supposed to be of the House of David, but this is problematical, particularly if there is a virgin birth. Paul recognized that early on and told the early Christians not to speculate on genealogy.

So, as Katz notes, the outline is as expected, joking that “Here is a Jewish boy, has a mother who thinks he’s God, who goes into his father’s business…” He noted that a large part of Jesus’ life is unknown but there is speculation in history and literature. For example, there is a tradition that he studied in India and a story by DH Lawrence that he had a love affair in Egypt.

What is important about all this is that he is a miracle worker, an aesthetic of sorts, someone who says I come to fulfill the law, someone who gives prophetic revelations (like the Sermon on the Mount), someone who speaks with the consciousness of the divine. And then who transforms all the prophecies, all the understandings and all the expectations by being crucified.

At the Heart of the Difference–The Easter Event

Indeed the central point in the encounter between Judaism and Christianity is not Jesus’ life, but the death and resurrection. While Jews often want to examine whether Jesus performed miracles or observed the Sabbath, that is largely trivial. For Christians, the central fact is not the miracles, the ethics or the observance, but the fact that God came into the world in the flesh, that God loved the world enough to give his only son, that the son mounted the cross, took the sins of the world on himself, was crucified for mankind and rose from the dead three days later. And that the history of the world and heaven and all the metaphysical questions have never been the same again.

That, said Katz, is the issue that we, as Jews, have to confront. We have to recognize that the whole issue between Jews and Christianity is defined by what Christians call the Easter event.

Exactly why he was crucified from a historical point of view is unclear. We can say that the description of the trial is not representative of what we know about Jewish law. It seems, Katz noted, to be a later attempt to deflect criticism of the Romans in a Roman world in a period where Christians were trying to make Roman converts. Yet crucifixion is a Roman punishment, usually related to insurrection, and the Jewish Sanhedrin had lost the ability to invoke the death penalty at this point in history.

The tradition of Jesus having some kind of wreath or slogan above his head saying “King of the Jews” is plausible, on the other hand, in the sense of pointing to an apocalyptic Jesus, or a Jesus who preached about the coming kingdom of God. The Romans were not about to give up the world to a Jewish Messiah.

Christianity Develops as a Theology

The story of Christianity develops as a theology. There is no historical information, no straightforward writing, of the event. There is no mention of Jesus in any Jewish contemporary source. In fact, the earliest rabbinic references are in the Talmud, and not even in the Mishnah, which means they come after 200 CE. To put that in perspective, it is a similar time period to us writing about George Washington. There are also no Roman sources. The only sources are the Jewish Christian sources; the writings of Paul and the Gospels and the Book of Acts. By the time these books are written, however, they share a theological understanding. Key to understanding that theology is its terminology. (see box)

Todd–put terminology section in box
Key Christian Terminology

Katz shared a basic set of terms. The first three are dubbed “mysteries” of faith, doctrines that are not explicable by reason. They may be explained by the fact that God can do anything.

Incarnation: The word means “enfleshment.” According to Christian doctrine, Jesus is literally God in the flesh. To not believe it is a heresy, although there are groups today, such as the Unitarians, that search for other understandings. The Church history is full of various heresies–of those who said Jesus only appeared to be a man, or was a creation of God to do God’s work, or that he was only a man. Nonetheless, the official history of the early Church was that Jesus was God incarnate. Why this is important has to do with the crucifixion; why it is necessary and why it operates.

Hypostatic Union: This doctrine says that God literally takes on human flesh and is both perfect man and perfect God. In order for Jesus to be who he has to be, he has to be both divine and human. If he’s only one, he can’t fulfill the role.

Trinity: God has three faces or is manifest in three ways. This is not non-monotheism or pagan. It is more like an aspect. For example, a person today has many roles as a parent, a child, a professional, a spouse. In the same way, Jesus was the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Grace: Grace is mentioned only occasionally in the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Mathew or Luke; and used overwhelmingly in Paul. Paul is the source of most Christian philosophy.

Christian Sources–The New Testament
The Gospels and the Pauline Epistles

Among the Christian sources are the Gospels, which means “Good News.” The first three are the synoptic gospels. Although these appear to give a synopsis of Jesus’ biography, these are not biographies, but are philosophical documents written by early Christians. It is clear, noted Katz, that there was an oral tradition. There were collections of sayings. Much of this oral tradition, however, ran into a problem when it seemed that the church would continue to exist. Even Paul expected Jesus to return in his generation. Once the Church continued to exist, and Christians spread geographically, they needed a common document. And so they wrote the Gospels.

Although the early Church fathers noted there were many Gospels, four came to be considered canonical: Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

Mark, written in Greek between 60 and 70 for a diaspora reader, was written for an audience of Jewish Christians. It seems to be written outside the land of Israel as there are errors and interpretations that would have been unnecessary for a Hebrew speaking audience, such as an explanation of the word “abba” to mean father. The Mark who the book is not the person mentioned in the New Testament who knew Jesus. The importance of Mark is what it doesn’t tell us, as many of the stories found in Luke are not in Mark. In the history of the Church, Mark was of very little consequence.
Matthew is the most famous of the gospels. It is usually taken by the church to be the oldest and most authoritative about the life of Jesus, although it is also not an eyewitness account. It is clearly written for Jews since it has the most information about the supposed debates between Jesus and the Pharisee and has the most information about Jewish Law. It is also written as a polemic against Judaism, hammering home that Judaism is at an end. For example, in Matthew, there is a wedding parable in which guests invited to a wedding don’t come. The guests are the Jews. At the same time, God says that He’ll make a new people and we have the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-17.

Matthew is important as it is written by a Jew with powerful arguments against Judaism. It is written almost certainly after the destruction of the Temple about the meaning of Jewish life after 70, about the meaning of the exile and about the meaning of Messianism in this context.

The third book is Luke, a non-Jew usually thought to be connected with the Roman Community. It is written about 100 CE for the early Jewish Christians and for Gentiles. It is the longest of the Gospels and very Gentile in its orientation.

The Gospel of John is not a synoptic Gospel or a biography. John begins with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was made flesh.” This is a heavily theological document. In the beginning was the Word – “logos”–and the Word became man. This is the doctrine of the incarnation, very frontally presented. John is very spiritual. He is not interested in biography, but is very centered on the meaning of the Crucifixion. He is also very anti-Jewish. In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, Jews are pictured as the spawn of the devil, a very repercussive phrase that would last 2000 years. John is probably the latest of the books, written about 110-120 CE. All the books were written in Greek.

The most important books of the New Testament are the Pauline epistles. No one says anything as important as Paul. Paul was a Jew named Saul of Tarsus who tells us he was originally a persecutor of Christians. We have no reason to doubt that. Sometime in the early 30s or 40s, he is on the road to Damascus (to persecute Christians) and he sees a vision of Jesus asking him why he is doing this persecution. Paul then “wakes up” and decides to devote the rest of his life to being the disciple par excellence even though he didn’t know Jesus in the flesh.

He travels a lot. Everywhere he goes, he goes to the synagogue and then he writes and gives instructions to the communities he has visited. These are the books we know as Romans, Phillipians, Corinthians, etc. which tell of the places he visited and what he wrote. All together, Paul went on five missionary journeys between about 46 CE and 64 CE. In 64 he was martyred in Rome. (One of the reasons Rome became the pre-eminent city of the Church is because both Peter and Paul were martyred there.) Paul’s writings are not biographies. He is only interested in theology.

The Wrestling Begins

Katz reiterated that these early Christian books are not eyewitness accounts. What we have as the foundation of Christianity is a series of theological documents which build on each other, all of which are rooted in an oral tradition. And from the beginning, this theological edifice understood that there was a fundamental competition and collision between its message and Judaism.

Katz noted people often overlook the evidence that this collision was present even before these writings were set down. Paul is already a persecutor of Christians, which shows there must have been deep collision between what Jesus is thought to have taught and what the Jewish community thinks. This understanding is in place almost from the beginning. It came with the understanding that the Easter event had changed things so dramatically that Judaism and Christianity had to go different ways.

The groups continued to wrestle for almost 40 years, from the Crucifixion in 30 until the revolt of 60-70. Until then, it was an internal debate, Jew against Jew. In 66, when the revolt started, however, the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem made a fateful decision. They looked at the zealots who had created the revolt, they looked at the Pharisees, they looked at the Qumram group, and they realized they had no interst in the conflict. They felt it didn’t require them to take up arms. They went to the Romans and were given permission to leave. They picked themselves up, crossed the Jordan River, went to a community known as Pela, and from that point on, there would be two separate religious forms.

At first, the groups were close, as family members were in both groups. But after 70, Judaism and Christianity are separate and the New Testament sources reflect that. The intense polemic in the Gospels reflect this “we” and “they” situation. No longer was there a shared theological and national space. This would give rise to the full-blown tradition of Adversus Judais in church philosophy. The condition grows and with the conversion of Constantine, it becomes the official stance of the Roman Empire.

Phenomenology of Judaism and Christianity
Christianity Redefines Covenant and Torah

The Jewish Concept of Covenant

With this background Katz led into the phenomenology of the two religions–how Christianity fundamentally redefined the notions of Covenant and Torah.

As Jews, we say we are the people of the Covenant, but what is that and what does it mean in Judaism and Christianity.

The term in its classical form means to bind or to fetter, to somehow put you in a limted position. In the Bible we have covenants of many types, between individuals, between states, in marriages, and, of course, the Covenant between God and Israel which is our prime concern.

What does it mean to be in a Covenant? According to Jewish tradition, a Covenant is a binding agreement, such as that between Abraham and the children of Abraham who will be the people of Israel.

The important thing, Katz stressed, is that the Covenant in the tradition and in the Bible is one that has mutual obligations. Genesis 15 and 17 give two descriptions of the Covenant. In the first, God is the active partner–that’s the version usually emphasized by Christian sources.

However, in the second Covenanting ceremony in 17, God says “I’ll honor and make you a great people, and you, in turn, will make yourself circumcised. In other words, there is an active participation on both sides. It is a two sided agreement, a mutual agreement; not an agreement between an active God and a passive Israel.

As we’ll see, in the Christian view, the Covenant that God makes with Abraham and Israel is seen as one sided. God creates the covenant and God can dissolve it. This means that God is not bound eternally to the Jewish people.

In the Jewish view, the Covenant with Abraham is future directed. It comes to fruition when God introduces himself to Moses in Exodus 3, saying “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Later, when Moses has to appeal to God, for example, after the golden calf, he says “You were the God who made promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, a promissory note reference. The promise comes to fulfillment when God takes the people out of Egypt and promises to make them a great people.

In addition, the Covenant does something else. It creates a judicial personality, called the people of Israel. The Covenant is not a Covenant of individuals, but of a people. We are not members of the Covenant as individuals. We are members of the people of Israel. Individuals pass on. The people of Israel are eternal.

This idea of the corporate community of Israel resonates throughout Jewish life. We have public prayer. Praying with a minyan is better than praying by ones self. Standing on the mountaintop, alone, is not the ideal. Moses has to come down and deal with the people.

This communal ideal is crucial as the Covenantal person is other-directed, not egotistical. To be consumed with self-identity is to be a sinner, in violation of the arrangement. Remember Abraham, the first Jew, pleads for Sodom even though there are no righteous there. Moses, when God wants to destroy the people after the Golden Calf, says” You will have to wipe me out of your book.” The prophet always comes down, as well. And in the Psalms, God says “I will be with you in your troubles.”

This is what it means to be a member of a Covenantal community. “Israel” means “to wrestle” with God, to constantly be occupied with God’s concerns. And God has no history, except with Israel. The Bible doesn’t talk about Mesopotamia. The history of the world is written through the history of Israel.

Even when the people of Israel do things God doesn’t like, God shows concern. God says “Don’t make a king.” The Jewish people say “We want a king.” Instead of being angry, God says “I’ll give you a king. And we’ll sanctify the king and make it the House of David, from which the Messiah will come. What this shows, is that the people, as well as God, have influence. There is a tradition, in fact, that the time of starting the festivals in heaven can’t occur until the court below decrees it–a tradition that recognizes the power of people in relation to God.

The concept that we are partners with God, noted Katz, is foundational. Everything in Jewish life is a corollary of this. There are deep implications in the land of Israel, as it is the place–the laboratory–in which we fulfill our destiny as a holy people. God takes a holy people and connects them to a holy land, where, in control of the public space, we can decide on war, peace, taxation and other matters of control. (Katz joked that, in a sense, you might consider that God, Judaism, and the land of Israel, are, in a sense, the quadrilaterial parts of Judaism; almost corresponding to the Trinity in Christianity).

Another point, noted Katz, is the implication that the failure to keep the Covenant does not dissolve it. When the people of Israel transgress, they are not rejected. Instead, there are “penalty clauses” built in to the arrangement.

A further concept is the role of exile in relation to the Covenant. Exile is an intrinsic part of the Covenantal idea.

Finally, Katz noted that he had not mentioned salvation as part of the Jewish idea of covenant.

For Jews being a member of the Covenant does not mean to be saved, if saved means the metaphysical notion of some kind of afterlife. When there is talk in Judaism at all about salvation, it comes from keeping the Torah. But keeping the Torah is separate from the Covenant. Further, it is not only Jews who have the opportunity for eternal life. We have the story of Jonah, in which God is as concerned with the people of Ninevah as of Israel. That’s why we read the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur. We don’t read a narrowly Jewish book.

The Christian Concept of Covenant

All of these ideas are fundamental to the Jewish notion of Covenant. And it is different than what Christianity means when it uses the term. Christianity also uses Covenant language. There is a connection between the death of Jesus and Covenant, particularly in the synoptic Gospels, as stated by Paul. There is the idea that the blood of Jesus makes a new covenant, which is the origin of the mass.

As the church understood it, the death of Jesus and the resurrection–the Easter event which is the central activity with which Christianity is concerned–creates the new community. The emphasis is not on the community building the world, but on the idea of salvation–salvation from sin In these early sources, the Covenant means the community of the saved.

It is this emphasis on redemption from sin that delineates Christianity and redefines all the basic notions of Judaism.

We see this clearly in Paul. He uses the term Covenant, sometimes to refer to the Covenant of the Hebrew bible, but usually to refer to the Christian community. He begins to note the separation. The Pauline Epistles date from the late 40s to the early 60s. They are the earliest of the books, which shows how early this idea was part of the Christian story.

Paul says that the Jewish understanding of Covenant is corrupt, mistaken and trivial and fading away. Katz summarized the writings this way:

There was an old Covenant between God and Israel. (Paul never denies this–that is fundamental.) But that Covenant is written on tablets of stone as compared to the fulfillment of Jeremia 31-31, which talks about a future where there is a Covenant of the heart. Christianity is a covenant engraved in the heart, while Judaism is a written code. Judaism is the 10 commandments and Torah. The Church is the spirit of the living God. More importantly, said Paul, the Covenant of Israel kills, while the Covenant of Christ gives life. Where Judaism condemns, Christianity makes righteous. Where Judaism is an order of slavery, the Church means freedom. And so Judaism fades away, while the Church is permanent.

For Paul community is not a matter of descent from Abraham; it is not a familial community that carries with it obligation. Rather, it means those who are saved, which is altogether different meaning.

Paul goes further, making divisions which the Jewish tradition doesn’t recognize, such as a distinction between judgment and promise. In the Hebrew bible, you have God’s judgment on the faithless and God’s promise of future redemption. Paul looks at this judgment and says all of it falls on the people of Israel as they don’t know salvation. According to Paul, all the wrath of God falls on the people, as they continually reject the prophets, and continually reject God’s promise. But the promise can’t be fulfilled as Israel doesn’t know salvation. Therefore the promise goes to an entirely new community called the Church.

Paul Divides Concepts of Promise and Judgment

Says Katz, what Paul has done is something important and questionable. He has divided promise and judgment. You might say, Katz noted, that the greatest feature of the Hebrew Bible is self-criticism. The Jewish people are constantly critical of themselves. The prophet criticizes Israel, but is part of Israel. When the Jewish people fail, Jeremiah and Ezekial go into exile. The prophet doesn’t separate himself and say “I’m separate and part of a different tradition.”

What Christianity did, on the other hand, was divide Israel into two types: physical Israel and spiritual Israel. The spiritual Israel includes the heroes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and culminates in Jesus. The physical Israel, on the other hand culminates in the people who cried “Let his blood be upon us and our children.” Regarding the Torah and Jewish practice, Paul separates the spirit and the letter, the physical and the spiritual, as well.

So the whole fabric of Jewish life is torn apart by the Pauline structure, which continues to emphasize the division between the old Israel and the new.

Katz emphasized that Paul did not do this out of malice or because he was a bad person. You have to grasp that Paul believes that at the death and resurrection of Jesus, the world had changed, Katz noted. Now redemption had actually occurred. The gates of heaven were open as they hadn’t been since the sin of Adam. That’s why, up until then, no one went to heaven, they went to purgatory. But now history has changed, redemption is possible. And for Paul, this means that all the categories are different.

The Jewish refusal to accept this is just another sign of Jewish obstinacy and sinfulness.

What all t his means is that when Jews and Christians talk about Covenant, they are talking about very different things.

The Jewish Concept of Torah
The Idea of Merit

Katz then moved on to a discussion of Torah.

Torah is a very broad term in Judaism. When we see it translated as “law”, we should object, “he said. The term “Torah” in its most basic etymological meaning is teaching. It is divine teaching in which God reveals his purpose, his desire and his interest. And the Torah is complicated.

First of all, there are the historical sections. They have an important function which is to give Israel a history and self-identity. For a people that had been slaves for 400 years, there was no culture. They needed their own myth of national purpose; and the historical sections of Torah provide that. It tells us where we come from and what our destiny is.

Second, there are the ritual purposes of Torah. These were misunderstood and a source of Christian attack.

The meaning of Leviticus, Katz noted, is God’s way of creating a meeting place between God and man. That’s why, etymologically, the word for sacrifice means “to come close to”. The purpose of sacrifice is a way to come closer to God.

Ritual does not, for the most part, have an ethical explanation. We could come up with them, but the fundamental meaning of the Levitical rules–the ritual rules–is the idea of holiness.

Holiness is a word we don’t often use in modern life. We hear of ethics, and that the essence of Jewish life is to be ethical. And it’s true that you can’t be holy if you’re not ethical. But ethics are a preliminary stage. Judaism envisions a transformation in life which involves moving from one plane of existence to another. It involves changing the way one is in the world, so it looks at the world and finds the ineffable, the mystery, at the heart; something more than we are, a touch of the transcendent.

This is the purpose of ritual.

Unfortunately, said Katz, in modern life, ritual is almost not in the conversation. Yet he characterized rituals as “for” or “against” holiness. Holiness is closeness to heaven, to the presence of God. Some things keep you from holiness; they are polluting. Yet they have nothing to do with ethics.

Ethics, in fact, supersede holiness rules. If a priest comes upon a dead body, he is obligated to bury it, even though the act will make him ritually unpure. There is also the example of the red heifer. The red heifer’s ashes make pure, but the priest who sprinkles them is unpure.

Yet ethics will not satisfy the deep craving for meaning in the human being. Holiness is a crucial aspect of Jewish life, yet missing in much of it today. We’ve reduced Judaism in the post-Kantian universe of the past 200 years to a kind of reductionistic copyism, said Katz. When we come to synagogue on Yom Kippur we give tzedakah. This is important, but it is not the whole thing. There is also t’shuvah and t’filah, he said.

He talked of the notion of Torah as being rooted in God’s spirit, expressive of God’s love, and concerned with God’s judgment; as God’s contribution to the Covenant. The Torah gives Israel a way to live that is meta-extraordinary, he said. The whole of Jewish life is predicated on the assumption that people can do what the torah commands. God doesn’t make commands that are impossible. They require discipline and commitment, but they are doable. Judaism believes that the doing of these things creates what is called z’chut, or merit. And it is an important idea that people can be meritorious in the sight of God. The rabbis said nothing happens without merit. There is a midrash that the children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt, not only because God was obligated to do so, but because they continued to use Hebrew names and the mothers of Israel continued to have Jewish babies.

It is up to us to make the world better. The Talmud tells us: If you’re planting a tree and the Messiah comes, finish planting a tree. The ecstasy of the eschaton will wait, Katz said, and chances are, it’s a fraud. But in the meantime, we can do things that God finds worthy. Another example was Nachson jumping into the sea to show his faith. Only then did the sea split.

All this means that in Jewish life we believe things will be better and worse because of what we do. We earn certain aspects of our eternal life by our behavior.

Katz noted that he spent this time describing Jewish attitudes towards the Torah, especially the idea of zchut, or merit, because of its contrast with the Christian view. These attitudes are problematic for Jewish/Christian relations and the center of strife over what the Church calls the Law.

The Christian View of Torah
Beyond the Law

Why didn’t the Church continue Jewish practice, he asked? After all, James was observant, he made the sacrifices; and yet we find no Christians (except those who are heretics) keeping Shabbat on Saturday.

All of this points to a fundamental issue, he noted. Sometimes, Jews try to say that Jesus was a good Jewish boy who kept the law and that everything that followed was a misunderstanding. This, Katz said, is absurd.

He painted a complicated picture, noting that the synoptic gospels are based on traditions that, at the time they were written, were at least 50 or 60 years old. All are colored by the destruction of 70. All were written in a context of dominant Roman influence. He pointed to a famous phrase attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5: “I come not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.”

Sometimes, said Katz, Jews point to that to say that Jesus kept the law. But if you look consistently, he noted, what it is saying is that Jesus kept the law, but, in fulfilling it, made it obsolete. This means that, after the death of Jesus, no one else needs to keep the Law. This is especially clear, especially in Paul.

Paul includes the most famous polemic against the law. Paul says the Law is dead, that the Law is a curse and that there is no salvation in the Law. “All who keep the Law are under the sign of a curse. All that rely on the words of the Law are not saved.”

Why did Paul say that?

Katz made the point that Paul was not an anti-Semite; neither was he anti-Jewish in the sense of being opposed to the people of Israel.

Yet he was at variance in a fundamental way because of how he made sense of events–the resurrection–which he believed from his own experience. He tried to understand why a Messiah had to be in the flesh, why he rose from the dead, why he had to be incarnate–all of the things which make no sense from the Jewish point of view, but which he felt to be true.

He resolved it this way: Yes, God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, but not to give them the opportunity for merit, or achievement, or a way of salvation or communion with God. Instead, the Law is the means that God uses to show the failure of human possibility. Unlike the Jewish belief, the fundamental Christian belief is that no one can keep the Law.

The reason we can’t is because we’re all original sinners. Because of original sin we are corrupt in our being. It is not that our actions are corrupt. The fact that our actions are corrupt is simply symptomatic of our souls. We cannot overcome this with our efforts; and therefore, the whole Jewish notion that the Torah can be kept and that you can have merit is wrong.

Paul says you can’t have merit. There is no salvation by the works of the Law and there is no work of the Law that has merit since no one can really keep the Law. No one can really be a Tzaddik. It’s the consequence of Adam’s sin–Adam broke all the rules. And so the human condition is to flounder in the muck. There is no way that human beings can do anything meritorious.

While all this shows how degenerate we are, the implication is that God still loves us. So God decides to make the difference. Israel doesn’t make the difference. We don’t have that capacity. The human level has no capacity for finding salvation. But God loves us so much that he gave us his only son.

This means that God comes into the world to free us of the obligations of the Law. The whole nature of existence, now that Salvation has come into the world, is different. We are free of the Law, we don’t have to worry about it. God has freed us fro it, and opened a new dispensation.

Paul says Jews think they can keep the Law, think they can be tzadikim, think they can hold up the example of Abraham. (And, Katz noted, we do believe this.) Yet Paul says this isn’t true. The reason it’s not true is that Jews are boasting and proud. This is an ancient Christological idea, with roots in Paul, that we are arrogant and really think we can change the world; that we can bring something like paradise, even incrementally, to the world.

Paul says this is Jewish arrogance and unrestrained pride. It is what the Greeks would call hubris. While Jewish arrogance and ego says we are good enough to make a significant contribution; Paul says we can’t as we are all children of Adam. Since we are children of sin, nothing we do can make a real difference. The result is that if God wants there to be salvation in the world, he can’t leave it to us as we will continue the pride and the arrogance, as well as the floundering, from generation to generation.

Paul says that, under the Law, I was a good Pharisee, but what good is that? Now, with the Dispensation Paul comes to understand from the Crucifixion, Paul says that God came into the world and said, enough. There will be no more illusions about doing good under the Torah. Now I will make salvation possible by taking on the sins. Not because YOU do it, but because I do it.

In the hands of Paul, the Torah became an obstacle to redemption. He paints the Biblical stories as a series of (in Katz’s words) kvetching. God redeems the children of Israel from Egypt and they’re kvetching in the desert; they want water and food. So he gives them manna and fowl and they’re still kvetching; so God says, wander 40 years in the desert. They do this, Katz interprets Paul, because they’re “nudnicks.” Then God sends the prophets and they all have problems as the people are still miserable. Then the Kings are miserable. And what finally happens is that God has enough.

And so we have God in heaven, who says “let me end it.” And he sends his son Jesus to say “Enough. The obligations of Torah, which reflect your inability, are over. Now I give you freedom. Just have faith in the risen Christ.”

A Pauline View of Jewish Perversity

So what do the Jewish people do when they hear this message? They go on keeping the Law. What could be more perverse? If anything else is a proof that we’re proud and degenerate, the Crucifixion is the proof par excellence. We reject the call to freedom, freedom from the law and death.

So what all this means is that there is an absolute reconstruction of the basis of Jewish tradition.

Coming to Terms

If you want to come to terms with the meaning of the Jewish-Christian conversation, said Katz; if you want to understand the 2000 year old history of conflict then you have to understand this. You can’t water down the Christian version of Judaism or the Jewish rejection of Christianity. Never before or again was there such a profound critique of Judaism. And this is what the fundamental debate is about: Is Judaism a religion of salvation in a meaningful way, in a way that God wants, or has the Crucifixion opened up a new way and shown the abject poverty and blindness of Judaism? In older churches, Katz noted, there are sculptures of an old woman blindfolded and a young woman with a sword. The interpretation is that the old woman is the Jew–the Jew is blind.

There is a story in the Torah that when Moses came down, he had brightness in his face and wore a veil, as the brightness was too much to see. Yet when Moses taught Torah to the people, he lifted the veil. When Paul interprets that passage, he says that Moses had a veil when he taught, that God taught Israel through a veil, indirectly. The implication is that the Jews have never understood our own meaning. We read from the beginning to the end. The right way is to read the Torah from the end to the beginning: The Crucifixion is what makes sense.

Noted Katz, this is an extraordinarily complicated dialogue, in which the church on the one hand needs the Hebrew Bible because that is where the prophecies are; and yet it has to make space for itself. It has to deny that Judaism understands its own promises and so has to fundamentally critique that the Jewish understanding is plausible and correct.

This is where the Jewish-Christian encounter is rooted.