His Body, Ourselves

Reviewed by Benjamin Balint

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

Rational ethics, Wyschogrod maintains, partakes of a similar villainy, and he bristles just as much at the modern secular humanist able to think in moral but no longer in religious categories. In an essay with loud echoes of the maverick Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz, he turns the Garden of Eden tale into a lesson on moral self-sufficiency:
[Man] is to obey God in order to obey God and for no other reason. And when he disobeys God, he has not violated a law that has an autonomous claim on his conscience and which therefore puts him in the wrong in an objective sense, but he has rebelled against God…. When man develops a morality not based on God’s commandment—even if coincidentally much of it may coincide with those commandments—an act of expulsion of God has occurred…. Now reason or moral intuition or something else performs the function that the Bible can only envisage God as performing.
Along these lines, Wyschogrod devotes another essay to explaining Judaism’s lack of either a doctrine or a vocabulary of conscience: “In conscience, it is not after all God who is being heard but man. The Jew, however, is required to listen to God and not to man.” If Wyschogrod is willing to accept a conception of conscience at all, it is one wherein God speaks through a voice that seems to come from within, “heteronomy and autonomy blend[ing] into a dialectical unity.” In conscience, as in reason-based ethics, Wyschogrod detects a whiff of idolatry.
What can we say of all this? We could contest Wyschogrod point by point. Even as we admire his strong affirmation of Jewish particularism, we could register discomfort with his anti-rationalist reliance on divine command. On encountering his somewhat anemic Zionism, we could dispute the proposition that full peoplehood can be achieved without sovereignty, or sovereignty achieved without force. We could question the degree to which Wyschogrod has subordinated the Tora—which, in rabbinic thought, is created before the world and for the sake of which the world is created—to election. (David Novak levels just this criticism in his philosophically more nuanced handling of the subject in The
Election of Israel
, 1995.) We could draw attention to the strangeness inherent in a claim by a twentieth-century Jew—especially one who writes as if there were no interpretative tradition on the subject—that he understands Paul more accurately than did Augustine or Luther or, for that matter, centuries of anti-Pauline polemicists. Or we could note that due perhaps to his biblicism, Wyschogrod adduces not a single rabbinic source for his unorthodox rendering of divine corporeality and in-dwelling.
But there is a more fundamental problem here. Wyschogrod himself points the way to it with his remark that “any interpretation of Judaism that aims to maximize its differences with Christianity imposes as much of a foreign agenda on Judaism as its reverse.” Whatever the merits of such a claim, it is clear that in both the range and content of his thinking he is guilty of the latter. That Wyschogrod neglects to develop accounts of problems that do not touch directly on Jewish-Christian dialogue—creation, providence, reward and punishment, free will, revelation, miracles, prayer, evil—reveals his theology to be drawn from a limited palette. And yet once entered into, we notice it is not really a dialogue at all, but an intricate ingratiation.
In opposing the spiritual and universalistic Church to the carnal and particularistic Synagogue (a “blood communion”); in straining to find a Jewish analogue to the doctrine of the Christ; in subordinating virtually all else to the election of Israel (after all, a Christian article of faith, too); in calling his project a “Jewish Barthianism” and reporting that “there is nothing more important that I have learned from [the leading twentieth-century Protestant theologian Karl] Barth than the sinfulness of Israel”; in deferentially accepting Jewish-born Cardinal Lustiger’s explanation of his conversion to Catholicism (“I am not ceasing to be a Jew… I am discovering another way of being a Jew”); in considering Christianity to be not really a separate religion at all but—as he puts it in an essay not included here—“part of Greater Judaism”; and in maintaining that the birth and spread of Christianity is of decisive theological import for Judaism, Wyschogrod adopts a Christianized view of Judaism.
Like the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig—who also saw in chosenness “the truly central thought of Judaism” and whose The Star of Redemption gets an appreciation in this book—Wyschogrod’s mistake is to approach Judaism from the point of view of Christianity, toward which he feels an admiration mixed, one can’t help intuit, with a certain sense of inferiority. (“Dialogue with a theology as sophisticated as that of Christianity,” he says, “advances Judaism theologically.”) Is it any wonder that Wyschogrod has been so enthusiastically received by Christian readers, that his articles are lately more likely to appear in journals like Evangelische Theologie and Pro Ecclesia than in Jewish periodicals like Tradition and Sh’ma, or that both this book and The Body of Faith are published by Christian presses? (Here is the Rev. Paul M. van Buren reviewing the latter: “There it is, solid and mystical, moving and intelligent, totally Jewish and with each copy wrapped in its own prayer shawl!”)
In sum, we find in Abraham’s Promise a manner of theologizing that lies somewhere between baptized Rosenzweig and circumcised Barth. This manner, infused as it is with an air of spiritual dependence and derivative as it is of Christian tropes, represents the newest chapter in the Jewish infatuation—born of the German Jewish moment of which Hermann Cohen, Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Leo Baeck are representative products—with Protestant theology. Sadly, because the language of Christian theology has long been almost identical with that of theology, to grasp how these great men thought about God it is first necessary to understand the respective stances they took vis-à-vis Christianity.
 It need not be so. Even if we argue that Jews these days should respectfully rethink their attitude toward and become less estranged from Christians, we must see that a Christian understanding of Judaism is not at all the same as Judaism’s understanding of itself. To say otherwise, as Wyschogrod does, is to conflate interfaith dialogue and theology, or at least to allow the exigencies of dialogue to steer theology.
Genuine dialogue will depend on Jews who respect both Jewish and Christian autonomy by firmly grasping their own tradition’s distinctiveness and at the same time avoiding the temptation to see Christianity merely as an actor in a Jewish drama. The urgently needed revitalization of Jewish theology will begin, in turn, with the conviction that Christianity has for Jews no more theological import than any other antinomian heresy, though it possesses of course both immense historical significance and contemporary political consequence. Only then will Jews no longer feel compelled to see Judaism through the eyes of another faith.

Benjamin Balint is an Associate Editor of Azure.

From the

Israel's Electoral ComplexIsraeli politics needs a system overhaul.
The Road to Democracy in the Arab WorldLiberalism has deep roots in the Middle East, if we know where to look.
Lawrence of JudeaThe champion of the Arab cause and his little-known romance with Zionism.
Secret of the SabbathIt isn’t about R&R. It’s about how to be a creative human being.
Save the Citizens’ Army

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022