Dayton Christian Jewish Dialogue

Minutes of Meeting

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June 14, 1998

Location: Alumni Hall, University of Dayton

Meeting Topic: Torah in Early Christianity; Understanding Divergent Attitudes

Speakers: Dr. David Barr, Department of Religion, Wright State University

Hosts: John and Irmgard Hoffman

PRESENT: Robin Smith, Co-chair; Arthur Auster, Donn Bealer, Charlotte Braverman, Bert Buby, CarolAnn Cannon, Phyllis Duckwall, Shirley Flacks, Erika Garfunkel. Agnes Hannahs, John Hoffman, Edith Holsinger, Mary Kenton, Eleanor Koenigsberg, Harry Koenigsberg, Moira Levant, John Magee, Arch W. McMillan, Bob Mass, Eileen Moorman, Mary Ellen Rain, Bill Rain, Donald Ramsey, Ken Rosenzweig, Harold Rubenstein, Sophie Rubenstein, William Youngkin.

Robin called the meeting to order at about 8 PM. Eileen delivered the prayer which was taken from Ezekial. "I will gather them back on their land. . . I have poured out my spirit on the House of Israel." A host for the July meeting was requested (John and Irmgard Hoffman volunteered). Bert Buby announced that the August 9 picnic will be held at Mount St. John (Bergamo). It was announced that Judy Auster and Lou Ryterband have been hospitalized recently. Harold Rubenstein said that by sheer coincidence Eileen's prayer was from the Haftorah (reading from the Prophets in the Sabbath morning service) portion that he read at his own Bar Mitzvah.

Ken had three announcements. First he passed around copies of two engaging articles from a recent issue of Newsweek (June 15, 1998, pages 36-38). The first, titled "A Strange Affair" concerned the fascination of many modern Germans with Jewish culture and religion. The second was written by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (author of Hitler's Willing Executioners). It is titled "Europe's Success Story" and comments upon postwar Germany and its coming to deal with the Holocaust. In contrast to his extremely critical views of the role of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust, Goldhagen presents a surprisingly positive view of the German state in the postwar period.

Ken also shared an article by Cardinal Cassidy on the recent Vatican statement on the Holocaust, titled We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. That statement has been extremely controversial as many Jewish leaders have reacted with dismay to its language. Although the statement expresses regret for the Holocaust, it says the Holocaust was the work of a neopagan regime (the Nazis) rather than acknowledging that most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were Christians, and it happened in the heart of the Christian world. Rather than acknowledge the guilt of the Catholic Church in contributing to the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust and its failure to stand against it while it was being perpetrated, the Statement acknowledges only the guilt of members of the Church (which could include Popes and Cardinals). It holds the Church itself as being without sin. Cardinal Cassidy addressed these controversial issues surrounding the Vatican statement.

Ken also passed around the newsletter of the Catholic-Jewish Relations Council of Northeast Queens. Shirley raised the issue of the recent statement of the Southern Baptists that women should submit themselves to the authority of their husbands. Edith expressed the fear that this viewpoint may lead to domestic violence.

Introduction of David Barr

Robin praised Dr. Barr. She noted that she took courses from him at Wright State and that he is a recognized authority on the Book of Revelation. Ken then described David's background. He has been a Professor of Religion at Wright State University for 23 years. He has served as Chair of the Department of Religion and Director of the Honors Program at Wright State. David received his bachelors degree from a fundamentalist college in Indiana. He then went on for a Ph.D. in religion at Florida State University. He has authored several books, including New Testament Story and Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelations: Tales of the End (just published). David's daughter has received her MA degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan, and his son has just graduated from the College of Wooster and is "moving west" to San Francisco. David also has a stepdaughter who is a freshman in high school. David has spoken for many years at the Temple Israel Brotherhood Brunch Series, and addressed the Dialogue many years ago.

David's Presentation

I gave an earlier version of these ideas under the title Religious Schizophrenia, by which I meant to highlight the divided mind one finds in early Christian literature about Torah. Rather it is a love hate relationship. But it is also a relationship that sometimes descends into sickness, as 1 will make clear later.

There are two main points to this talk this evening (in case you doze oft):

  1. Early Christian writings exhibit a wide range of attitudes toward Torah, and this range reflects the diversity of the movement as well as the diversity of Jewish attitudes toward Torah at the time.
  2. The paradoxical statements about Torah in early Christian literature stem both from the inherent nature of Torah itself as well as from deep and conflicting human realities, namely the need for both meaning and guidance. There is, in other words, something universally human that we can observe in this sectarian squabble.
So, bear with me as I rehearse some of the things Christians say and imply about Torah in their earliest writings, and then help me reflect on how we might make sense of what they say.

First then, what do the early Christian writings say about Torah? The Hebrew word Torah corresponds (rather inexactly, I'm afraid) to the Greek term Nomos. Nomos is used 194 times in the writings in the Second Testament (ah the wonders of computers). Overwhelmingly, Nomos is a concern of Paul (121 times), but it is also a significant theme in the Gospels (49 times), James (10 times), and Hebrews (14 times). Let me briefly review this material.

While the attitude toward Nomos/Torah is uniformly positive in James and almost wholly negative in Hebrews, both Paul and the Gospels exhibit a dual attitude. On the positive pole we have James, who calls the law perfect (l:25), and cautions that one must keep all of it (2:10). He goes so far as to contrast it with "faith," rhetorically asking whether faith without faithfulness to the law can save anyone (2:14). Here is a typical example of James's rhetoric about Torah:

    Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor? (4:11f)

It is easy to see why the tradition remembers him as "James the Just" Now, on a historical note, this letter was probably not actually written by James, the brother of Jesus, but is part of a body of literature produced late in the first century in the name of James by followers committed to the observance of Torah.

Hebrews, by contrast, regards the law as obsolete and inferior to the new revelation in Jesus. Built on a vague Platonic model that saw the Torah as an earthly imitation of the true heavenly reality now revealed in Jesus, Hebrews can rather dispense with the Torah. Again, a typical statement:

    Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach (10:1).

The whole theme of the rather ironically named Hebrews is the superiority of the way of Jesus to the way of Moses, and establishing such a conclusion involves the consistent disparaging of Moses, the priesthood, the Temple, even the covenant. The author cites Jeremiah's promise to establish a "new covenant" with Israel and then concludes, "In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete" (8:13). This is dangerous rhetoric, but let's return to that later. Here I want only to note the more basic point: for James the Law is valid; for Hebrews it is obsolete.

Now each of these is a consistent point of view, and neither could be accused of schizophrenia, but how do they both come to be considered part of the biblical tradition of Christians? And in the canon they are put back to back (which comes first, would you guess?)

Now one of the things my study has convinced me of is that such placement is not accidental. History, as we know, is written by the winners who write it to present their own perspectives. At three crucial points in the development of Christianity there was a strongly anti-Torah (and anti-Jewish) bent: The Paulinists of the second century (such as Ignatius and Marcion), Augustine in the fifth century, and Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Their views have so clouded the picture that it requires a conscious effort to see things with fresh eyes. And that is what I want to do now, to look at the gospel tradition and the tradition of Paul with fresh eyes.

For the gospel tradition, I will look only at Matthew, for it is the gospel with the most developed and most central concern for Torah. Like James and Hebrews, Matthew is a late first-century writing. But Matthew is more problematic, embodying in itself a similar dichotomy in its attitude toward Torah. On the one hand, Matthew contains exceptionally positive statements about the enduring significance of the rule of Torah, Perhaps the strongest is the preface to a bitter invective against the Pharisees:

    Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach" (23:1-3)

Later in the same speech Matthew portrays Jesus as cursing the Pharisees for being scrupulous about the laws of tithing but neglecting "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." Traditional enough, but then he adds, "It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others." (23:23)

Already at the beginning of the story, Matthew has Jesus say:

    Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (5:17-20)

But just here a paradox arises, for in the very next sentence Matthew has Jesus begin to contest the Torah with a series of Antitheses. You have heard...but I say to you. There follows a series of contrasts between the ancient traditions and the word of Jesus on: murder, adultery, divorce, retaliation, and enemies Whereas the Law regulated murder, Jesus would regulate anger; the Law forbid adultery; Jesus forbids voyeurism; the Law regulated divorce, Jesus forbids it (except for sexual offense); whereas the Law permitted retaliation, Jesus demands acceptance of injustice; whereas the law demanded only love of neighbor, Jesus demands love of enemies.

Now this is often mischaracterized as an internalization of the Law, but this is later pietism read back. Matthew's demand, as he has just stated, is for a higher legal standard. For Matthew, one must always do more than the demands of the Law (but never less), and that more is defined by the teaching of Jesus. This is how we should understand the final scene in Matthew.

In that scene the risen Jesus appears to his disciples and in his parting instructions tells them:

    Go therefore and make disciples of all the gentiles, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (28:19f)

Clearly the word of Jesus has taken center stage; there is no thought of teaching them all the commandments of Torah. Yet read in the context of Matthew's gospel, the commandments of Jesus include the commands of Torah.

This is closer to James than Hebrews, but the seeds of dissolution have been planted. Because Matthew has filtered his commitment to Torah through his commitment to Jesus, the former can be disengaged when the understanding of Jesus changes, as it does in the second century. When that happened, Matthew's commitment to Torah was forgotten.

We come then to the most difficult body of literature to interpret: The Letters of Paul. A dozen books have been published on Paul and the Law over the last 20 years, with wide disagreement. 1 do not plan to give you a definitive treatment, and that's a good thing, since I couldn't even if I wanted to. Rather, what I want to do is point to the basic paradox in Paul. Paul argues vigorously, repeatedly, and passionately that people are justified "apart from the works of the Law" (Rom 3:28), that righteousness depends on faith not works (Rom 4:16); and above all that the gentiles do not need to be circumcised (Galatians). In this later regard, Paul makes several extreme statements that seem to entail a complete rejection of Torah. For example, in a bitter wordplay in his discussion of circumcision, he declares, "You are severed from Christ, you who would be righteous by the Law" (Gal 5.4). It has been easy to see Paul as the renegade who betrays the heritage of Israel, especially when we don't filter out the later Paulinists mentioned earlier, who were clearly anti-Jewish in their basic ideologies.

But two points call for more careful analysis. First, when a group of Paul's followers at Corinth took him seriously and began to live without regard for the demands of Torah, Paul was shocked. He roundly condemns their behavior and then changes his tune on circumcision, declaring:

    Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything (1 Cor 7:19).

Second, it is important to note that Paul established his "anti-Torah" position by continually citing the Torah for proof. Thus the proof that circumcision is not required, is that the Torah says Abraham was counted righteous before he received circumcision (Rom 4). We no longer need to observe Torah, he seems to say, because that is what the Torah says. This is at least paradoxical if not schizophrenic.

Much more could be done here, but you'll be pleased to know that I am not going to do it in this presentation. Let me summarize what I have argued in point one: in the literature of early Christianity there exists both a strong endorsement of Torah and a strong rejection of Torah. Sometimes these two positions are represented in two different writers, both of whom have become canonical (James and Hebrews); sometimes the two views exist in the same tradition that changes over time (Matthew) and sometimes and most pointedly they exist in the same writer at the same time (Paul). What can we make of this?

Now here I move into much less secure ground What follows is provisional, and represents my attempt to think through this issue out loud.

My second point is that we can discern in this dual response to Torah certain basic realities about religion, about the Torah, and indeed about human experience generally. Let me begin this line of thinking by reminding you of Rudolf Otto's description of The Idea of the Holy (Oxford, 1923). Otto described the experience of the Holy as a simultaneous attraction/repulsion, fear/fascination, awe/awful. If this is right, we might expect holy objects to elicit such dual reactions regularly. To this dualism of response we might add a dualism within the object.

For the Torah itself has always been understood in two ways, as both a set of regulations and as a more general vision of life. Jews have traditionally regarded it as both Halachah (rules) and Haggadah (stories). In some ways we can understand people like Paul to be embracing Haggadah even while he is rejecting Halachah. This is impossible, of course, for ultimately these are two sides of the same reality. In a real way the story of Torah is embedded in the details of the rules. This is one way we might understand James when he declares that faith without works is dead: the story of Torah is inadequate without the deeds of Torah. But for the Greeks, the situation was rather reversed.

The Greeks spoke of Mythos (myth, story) and Ethos (character, right action). These categories echo but are basically different from Haggadah and Halachah, for here the myth provides the justification for the action.

And just here Paul makes an additional move, for the Haggadah/story has been expanded, perhaps even rewritten, to include the story of Jesus. Paul sees these stories--the story of Torah and the story of Jesus--as harmonious, indeed even as the same story. But even more important, the myth of Jesus becomes the basis for character and action.

For Matthew too the story of Jesus recasts the story of Torah, but in a different way. For Matthew the Halachah of Jesus redefines the Halachah of Torah. Thus Halachah and character remain basic. James contains little of the story of Jesus (quite surprisingly if he were really Jesus's brother). James's clear positive view of Torah rests on deeds.

In Hebrews the story of Jesus has so overwhelmed the story of Torah that the latter is obsolete--both as story and as deeds.

I am not really sure what to make of all this, as I warned you, I am thinking out loud. However, it seems clear to me that these early Christian writings have not yet sorted this out. They are struggling, like the rest of us, to make sense of their lives. In this struggle they begin with Torah, whose dual nature corresponds so well to the two basic human moves toward meaning: Halachah and Haggadah, Mythos and Ethos. Some argued for the priority of rules; others advocated the priority of story. The result was not, however, a balanced perspective. It was rather a schizophrenic vacillation between Law and Gospel, works and faith--an embracing of the Torah to prove that the Torah need not be kept. It is here that we approach a diagnosis of sickness. When Christian thinking moved from the priority of Story over Rule and became an assertion of Story against Rule, then we are only a short step from regarding the law-observant Jews as the paradigm of rebellion against God (as certain contemporary Lutheran theologians have asserted).

But this is not the only, or even the most logical, path this thinking could take. In fact, the tension between mythos and ethos is ever at the heart of our human self-understanding. Judaism and Christianity have each resolved the tension differently, giving us, I think, some opening for dialogue.

Judaism has traditionally taken the side of ethos: build men of good character and the world will be as it ought to be (I'm afraid I choose the noun men purposefully, for there was a woeful lack of concern for woman's character). The Rabbis even imagine God saying: better they forget me and keep my commandments.

Christianity has traditionally taken the side of mythos: build a convincing picture of the world as it ought to be and people will live up to it. The Doctors of the church could even declare: Love God and do whatever you will (Augustine).

Both are right; both are wrong. Those who would build life on rules must consider that you can never change the rules fast enough to keep up with the changing world. Those who would build life on stories must consider that you can never trust the story to be followed to the best conclusion for action.

So perhaps it is only the tension between Story and Rule, Halachah and Haggadah--it is only the argument between Christianity and Judaism--that can show us the full meaning of Torah

David concluded his formal talk at about 8:30 PM.

Open Discussion of David's Talk

Bob Mass observed that neither Paul or James would say anything against Torah. Jesus is building a fence around the Torah. Bert appreciated David's article on Matthew, and noted that Matthew had a difficult time balancing the interests of the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. The mixed community situation in Matthew may explain the schizophrenia of the early Church. David replied that this schizophrenia is even greater in Paul.

Harold observed there is a Jewish parallel in the debates of two leaders of alternate schools of Jewish thought, Hillel and Shamai. Erica said we must look at the writings in historical context. The early Christian writings may not be as contradictory as we think. David replied that he is convinced there was much more diversity in early Christianity than we realize; there was even a lot of fighting. David commented that he is not speaking as a Christian or a Jew, rather as a student of this period. Arthur observed that he has always wondered why there are two testaments in Christianity. Why did Christianity adopt this dual-text system? David replied that in the second century, Marcion decided that Paul's new religion was contradictory to the Hebrew Scripture, and advocated that Christianity should adopt only one gospel. However, he was condemned by the Church and subsequently went to Syria where he established a lot of churches dedicated to his ideology. John Patterson observed that early Christians were of the Greek mindset.

David observed there are a lot problematic things in the Hebrew Scriptures. In some cases the rule of God required killing everyone in all the cities (the Israelites return to Canaan). Also, Greek mythology is full of reprehensible things that the Gods did. Bob Maas observed that Nomos is not a good translation for Torah. David replied that the word Nomos was used by Jews who read Greek. Eileen commented that God is mystery. She is able to live with both sides of the issue of the role of the Hebrew Scriptures in Christianity. David replied that this is fine so long as we do not slip into lazy thinking. Ken asked David to elaborate about the differences between a society ruled by mythos and a society ruled by ethos. David replied that he sees secular Israelis as a culture driven by mythos (the Zionist dream) and religious Israelis as a culture driven by ethos (Halachah).

Someone described Paul as being a salesman for the new religion. Lou Vera noted that the Torah was both oral and written. She also observed that Christians did not understand the experience of Israel as a nation. Lou also questioned the completeness of David's dual-pole theory of mythos and ethos or Halachah and Haggadah; she noted that in the Catholic tradition, philosophy plays an important role in rationalizing the relationship between myth and rules. David replied that he is primarily a student of the first few centuries of Christianity and loses interest in the periods during and after the fourth century when philosophical thinking was incorporated into the Catholic tradition. David acknowledged that Catholicism is ratio centric. Bert defended the theologians who employed philosophy by maintaining that people need to use their minds to understand the meaning of the texts. Religion is not just storytelling; in addition to ethos, it includes logos (the word), and pathos (feeling). Arthur asked about the Christian mandate to love ones enemies; how does it explain such events as the firebombing of Dresden during World War II which resulted in the killing of large numbers of noncombatant men, women, and children. In reply, David explained that nationalistic feelings often overcome religious feelings.

David noted that anti-Judaism is worse in Matthew than in Luke or Mark. Matthew says that the Kingdom of Heaven will be taken away from the Jews. If Matthew's community exists outside of Judaism, this is a condemnation of Judaism. However, if Mathew's community is a Jewish community, this is an intertribal dispute. In response to a question about what commandments from the Hebrew Scriptures are applicable to Christians, David replied that Christians generally regard most of these commandments as obsolete. Harold said that the covenant between God and Abraham takes precedence over everything. Erica maintained that love of God is the most important foundation of religion (the Sh'ma prayer which is the most important prayer in Judaism). Arthur pointed out there are two types of circumcision; in addition to physical circumcision is circumcising ones heart.

Lou asked about the contention that the break between Christianity and Judaism was not as abrupt as we have thought. David agreed with this notion. Ken asked if David believed that a legalistic society (in which Halachah is dominant over Haggadah) is too inflexible. David agreed and said there must be a balance between Halachah and Haggadah. Harold expressed the view that we place too much emphasis on the role of law in Judaism. He noted that custom often becomes associated with law.

The discussion of David's talk concluded at about 9:20 PM.

Harold raised the question of the establishment of a Christian Jewish Dialogue Bookshelf which was considered by the Dialogue a couple of years ago. Bert noted that he had donated a number of Jewish books to Rabbi Press. It was decided that Jack Kelley will be asked to investigate further the question of establishing the Bookshelf.

The meeting adjourned at about 9:30 PM.

Respectfully submitted,

Ken Rosenzweig, Secretary


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