His Body, Ourselves

Reviewed by Benjamin Balint

Abraham’s Promise
by Michael Wyschogrod (R. Kendall Soulen, ed.)
Eerdmans, 2004, 256 pages.


Michael Wyschogrod, whom the editor of this book calls “perhaps modern Orthodoxy’s most significant religious thinker since [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik,” was born in Berlin in 1928, and settled in New York in 1939. There he studied at Yeshiva Tora Vodaath, Yeshiva University, and Columbia, where in 1954 he wrote a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Heidegger (among the first publications in America on that German philosopher). Thereafter, he taught at the City University of New York and the University of Houston and became active in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Although widely admired for his book The Body of Faith (1983), Wyschogrod has mainly expressed his ideas in his essays, eighteen of which, some previously unpublished, now appear in Abraham’s Promise. The new anthology provides occasion to reflect on Wyschogrod’s long career and, because he is one of its few serious contemporary practitioners, on the state of Jewish theology itself.
As its title suggests, this volume—like Wyschogrod’s thinking generally—centers on God’s election of and irrevocable love for the progeny of Abraham. Wyschogrod insists that this choosing of the people Israel is “an election of the flesh,” a choice of “a biological family, rather than a community of faith.”
But as Wyschogrod takes this premise in increasingly surprising directions, it seems that for him this is where the clear contrast between Judaism and Christianity ends. To begin with, he claims God loves not only the souls of his people, but their bodies, too. And he not only loves their bodies, but dwells in them:
It is of course necessary to mumble a formula of philosophic correction. No space can contain God, he is above space, etc., etc. But this mumbled formula, while required, must not be overdone. It must not transform the God of Israel into a spatial and meta-temporal Absolute.... With all the philosophic difficulties duly noted, the God of Israel is a God who enters space and time…. God dwells not only in the spirit of Israel… he also dwells in their bodies.
Since in Genesis man is said to be fashioned in God’s image, Wyschogrod thinks we ought not be startled by this notion. “Man is created by God as a physical being,” he reminds us, “and if there is a human resemblance to God then his body also resembles God…. And if the human body can resemble God, then there must also be a physical aspect to God’s being.”
Wyschogrod emphasizes carnality in this way in order to prepare the ground for another unconventional claim, one it is best to let him put in his own words: The Christian doctrine of the incarnation, he says, represents “the intensification of the teaching of the in-dwelling of God in Israel by concentrating that in-dwelling in one Jew rather than leaving it diffused in the people of Jesus as a whole.” Put differently, “the divinity of Jesus is not radically different—though perhaps more concentrated—than the holiness of the Jewish people.” And then:
The Christian proclamation that God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is but a development of the basic thrust of the Hebrew Bible, God’s movement toward humankind…. At least in this respect, the difference between Judaism and Christianity is one of degree rather than kind.
This argument, and the adoption of a Christian vocabulary that accompanies it, carries over from The Body of Faith, where Wyschogrod uses it to explain the absence of Jewish analogues for certain Christian dogmas. “If there is no need for sacrament in Judaism,” he says there, “it is because the people of Israel in whose flesh the presence of God makes itself felt in the world becomes the sacrament.”
Other Christian dogmas are similarly rendered more or less Jewishly unobjectionable under Wyschogrod’s conciliatory touch. He endeavors, for example, to show that the Bible nowhere insists on the unity of God—that Deuteronomy 6:4 should be translated: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone”—and then calls the doctrine of the Trinity “a problem for rather than a complete break with Judaism.”
The same attempt to soften the sharpest theological differences between Judaism and Christianity motivates another of this book’s central ideas: Wyschogrod’s rereading of Paul’s well-known attack on Jewish law and legalism. Christian and Jewish readers alike may be surprised to discover that contrary to the standard interpretation, Paul did not claim that after Jesus the Tora, superseded by a new law, became no longer obligatory for Jews. Paul’s critique, Wyschogrod says, was aimed not at the law per se, but only at the adoption of that law by Gentiles: Paul “is continuing the rabbinic tradition of discouraging Gentiles from conversion to Judaism and accepting and putting themselves under the judgment of a set of demands considerably more stringent than the Noachide laws.”
If Paul’s view of the law—so long mistaken as antinomian—does not represent much of a departure from the Jewish faith, neither, Wyschogrod continues, does his emphasis on mercy and grace:
For Paul, Jesus means midat harachamim…. Judaism has always understood that if judged by the strict demands of the Law, no Jew can prevail. We are all sinners who must beg for the mercy of God; without it, we are lost…. When Paul says that humans are not justified by works of the Law, this is exactly what he means. He is saying nothing that is in any way different from common rabbinic opinion.
In striving toward rapprochement, Wyschogrod revises not only the Pauline view of the law, but the Jewish one too. He argues that the election of Israel precedes, chronologically and axiologically, the Tora, and is therefore in some sense more basic than Tora itself, which, though it is of course essential to Judaism, “is not the deepest layer of God’s relationship with the Jewish people.” Along these lines Wyschogrod—whose cast of mind turns out to be more biblical than rabbinic—assails what he calls “halachic deism,” or the tendency to glorify Jewish law at the expense of cultivating a sensitivity to the immediacy of the divine, “as if God had gone into retirement after he revealed the Law.”
If, moreover, chosenness is more basic than the Tora, it is surely more basic than the land of Israel. Wyschogrod in fact identifies “a curious ambivalence to the land in Jewish consciousness.” On the one hand, he knows that “the same act of election which binds Abraham and his descendants to God also binds the people to its land.” On the other, the Jews—unique in this respect—become a “full-fledged” people before entering the land, and remain so after expulsion from it, a fact that demonstrates for Wyschogrod the dispensability of the bond between people and land.
This causes Wyschogrod to approach Zionism with trepidation, since “whenever the people of Israel have attempted to constitute a national life on this soil in disregard of its election, the soil has rejected them under the most catastrophic circumstances.” He thus cannot share “the optimistic, self-reliant cheerfulness” with which many Jews view the establishment of the Jewish state, and he recoils still more from the violence committed in its name. “I simply cannot believe that the messianic era will be preceded by the reality of Jews becoming accustomed to killing,” he writes.
Stepping back for a moment, we discern an arch-villain lurking in the background of Wyschogrod’s views: Reason. Not surprisingly, its first embodiment is Maimonides, whom Wyschogrod accuses both of borrowing his rigid opposition to anthropomorphism and corporeality from “a metaphysical frame of mind that is completely foreign to the Bible” and of failing to consider “the danger of an overly rarefied God who is so beyond all conception that he cannot be distinguished from no god at all.” Rationalist thinkers like Maimonides, he goes on to say, “have made it appear that Judaism resists incarnation on some a priori grounds, as if the Jewish philosopher can somehow determine ahead of time just what God can or cannot do.”

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