Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Anti-Semitism Part 2: the religious factor

Years ago I had a class in Medieval Hebrew Civililzation, taught by the director of the local Hillel Foundation. Towards the end of the semester, Dr. Rubin* asked if anyone cared to try and explain anti-Semitism in the Western world. (A term he dislike by the way. He preferred "Judeophobia".)

Since from earliest childhood my mouth has lived its own life, wild and free, I said I'd have a go at it. In brief:

For a Christian, his whole faith is wrapped around the idea that the life of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies of the messiah. This implies the highest possible stakes, his belief in eternal life as a reward for believing this and acting accordingly.

For anyone who has studied the messianic prophecies under the guidance of a good Hebrew scholar as I have, the thing that strikes one most forcibly is - that it's not true.

The reasons are complicated and not relevant to this discussion, but among other things there is not a single messianic tradition but several (3 to 5 depending on who you're listening to), which scholars have been arguing about for a long time. But the most important reason lies at the heart of Christian symbolism - crucifixion. In the Hebrew scriptures, an accursed death which renders the body unclean and destroys the chance for resurrection.

Christianity looks like a combination of Jewish intellectualism and certain elements of Mediterranean paganism. Chiefly the idea of a literal "Son of God"**, "begotten, not made". This goes against the conception of a non-corporeal god of pure thought, not tied to any specific place or object, so different from the anthropomorphic deities of the Greeks and Romans and the demigod sons they begat on mortal women***. This ironically makes Judaism closer to Islam than Christianity in its core concept of the nature of divinity.

What I concluded was that for a believing Christian, the very existence of believing Jews is going to be a threat to their core beliefs, since he can't get around the fact that the basic scriptures of his faith are Jewish and the Jews stubbornly refuse to be convinced that their prophecies have been fulfilled.

(Ask any violence professional the quickest way to get assaulted: challenge core beliefs.)

Dr. Rubin listened to my exposition with a completely impassive expression and commented, "You're essentially correct. That's a rabbinical answer." (Meaning, you nailed it but it wouldn't be politic of me to say so.)

But Judaism is also the parent religion of Islam. Near the beginning of the Prophet Mohammed's career, the writings which became the Koran were shown to a Jewish scholar (Gaon), who pronounced them to be, "Garbled scripture." He was quickly given reason to recant his opinion and maintain further silence.

This set the pattern for Jewish relations with the derived religions. A new teacher arises who may initially be favorably disposed towards the Jews, because he's "fixed" and "purified" their religion. They reply that their religion is just fine thank you, and doesn't need fixing. The new teacher reacts with the rage of a rejected suitor.

It happened with the founder of Islam, and it happened with Martin Luther. "If we hang felons on a gibbet, we should have one twelve times as high for Jews."

I don't much like this conclusion but I don't see a way around it****. In further posts I will deal with the political, economic and cultural dimensions of anti-Semitism.

* Dr. Rubin was a good friend and teacher, and one of the bravest men I've met though I didn't realize it at the time. After many absences due to illness, he announced to us that he was going in for treatment for a chronic health problem that would soon be fixed, "One way or the other." He died on the operating table while underdoing surgery for a pancreatic ulcer. We realized only then that he had been saying good bye to us.

**I remember reading in a Biblical dictionary that "sons of God" was sometimes used as a term of praise for the very righteous.

***Heracles and Perseus for example. One historical speculation had it that in some societies of the ancient world, women of good family might serve terms as temple prostitutes. Any child conceived in that term would be considered children of the deity of that temple. Interesting, but I have no idea how that theory is regarded by scholars today. Anybody?

****See my previous post "Can you think?" http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/can-you-think.html Quiz question 2: How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?


  • At 10:41 AM, Blogger Gilmoure said…

    With the decline in the west, of religion, can conflicts with the properties of God still be considered a main cause of Judeophobia? What I see splattered around the internet is the usual "Jews control the banking", "Jews control the government" and "Jews control mass media". Haven't seen a religeous argument in ages.

  • At 12:25 PM, Blogger mjh said…

    It sounds like you're trying to say that being Christian is the definition of anti-semitism. Is that what you're trying to say, or did I miss something?

  • At 4:18 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…


    I haven't either, though I wonder about Jimmy Carter's latest judeophobic screed. I don't think it's the main cause anymore - but the old reliable fallback position.


    Not at all. Christian scripture has nothing of Jew-hatred in it, as the Koran does.

    What I'm saying is that for a believer in the literal incarnation of God in man, the Jewish view of the historical Jeshua ben Joseph as a rabbi ("teacher" or "guide" in the semitic languages) is always going to cause some tension between the religious of both faiths.

    I have sometimes wondered if this is the real significance of the epithet "Christ killer", i.e. someone who threatens my conception of Christ-as-God.

    For some Protestants the status of Jews is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, they don't accept Christ as messiah and Saviour. On the other hand, fundamentalist Protestants tend to strongly identify with the historical people of the Scriptures.

    Please don't take this as the opening of a theological debate. I don't disparage Christian belief at all, quite the contrary. It's just that I really don't care what people believe as much as I care about how they treat each other.

  • At 6:43 PM, Blogger Evanston said…

    Well, your Jewish professor may have found your explanation to be satisfactory, but I am disappointed. As an anthropologist, you know how the State often distracts the people from problems by making a scapegoat of some "other" group.

    First point: the jews have specialized (due to religion and strong ethnic bond) in being "other." This has been so from Abraham.

    Second point: as you note, there is nothing in the Bible (Old or New Testament) that justifies the persecution of jews, or any other group for that matter.

    Third point: the adoption of christianity as a state religion, first by Rome (in its successor Roman Catholic and Orthodox religions) and later protestant (Lutheran, Anglican, etc.) churches corrupted these churches. They acted primarily as agents of the state, and cooperated with persecution of any other religion (whether it be a different branch of christianity, judaism, Islam, etc.).

    Overall, the persecution of the jews has nothing whatsoever to do with Biblical theology and everything to do with the co-option of governments to attain their goals (popularity, profit, conquest, etc.).

    Hopefully above does not violate your desire to avoid theological discussions. I truly find it to be inaccurate. Grade? "C."

    It is much more accurate to describe western persecution of jews as an act of christendom, not of Christians. This is not a meaningless distinction. A great many true Christians died in these same persecutions.

  • At 4:45 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    As I mentioned, wait for part 3, which will deal with some of the specifics of some of these points. One demerit for not paying attention in class.

    Did you think I could have lived amidst the ruins of the once-flourishing Jewish culture of Eastern Europe for over a decade and missed this?

    I'll deal with the economic and cultural aspect of anti-Semitism - but can you really maintain that there is no religious dimension to it? And I don't mean "Biblical theology" but what the priest tells the peasants every Sunday.

  • At 9:22 AM, Blogger tvoh said…

    Sometimes I think anti-semitism is over intellecualized. The longer Jewish people live in a place, the more they accumulate in intellectual and physical capital. This actually makes them an easy target to steal from. As OW said, the only way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it.

    In college I read "Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century." The city was a prosperous place, but they did eventually have some problems. Solution, expel the Jews and confiscate the assets.

    How much of the anti-semitic propaganda is mere justification after the fact?

    Like Dostoyevsky's "I did him a bad turn once and have hated him ever since."

  • At 2:25 PM, Blogger prof said…

    vous pouvez mettre vos messages sur la page region de jewisheritage
    a bientot


Post a Comment

<< Home