Thursday, September 20, 2018

Saint Peter's Prayer

Rabbi Shimon Kefach was worried. A new Jewish movement had arisen, headed by a charismatic rabbi who many of his followers believed to be the Messiah. This movement had some pluses and some minuses in his eyes. On the one hand, it appealed to many who might otherwise have moved away from Judaism altogether. They were rural, poor, uneducated, not particularly observant of many of the rules of rabbinic Judaism; but this new preacher excited at least some of them, so that was probably a good thing. On the other hand, this preacher had some eccentric ideas and was drawing the attention of the government, and not in a good way. The Jews of his time were ruled by a ruthless occupying power and anyone who was viewed as remotely threatening had to be eliminated.

So Rabbi Shimon was sent by the other rabbis to infiltrate the movement. When, as feared, the rabbi of this new movement was put to death, to everyone’s surprise the movement did not die out. In fact, it continued to grow and soon was attracting not only Jews but also Gentiles.

After their rabbi’s death, a very bitter dispute broke out among the remaining leaders of the movement. They wondered: since this was a Jewish movement and its leader was their rabbi, could a Gentile simply join the movement? Or did he have to become Jewish to do so? Or maybe he shouldn’t have to become Jewish but would nonetheless have to observe at least some of the rules and rituals of Judaism.

As the new movement became predominantly Gentile, Rabbi Shimon was torn. He was glad that non-Jews were joining the movement, giving up idolatry and relating to the same God that the Jews worshipped. But at the same time, he saw that the brother of the executed rabbi, who thought that Gentiles had to become Jews before joining the group, had been pushed out of the leadership; and that Jews who were joining the movement were now also being told that they no longer needed to observe the mitzvot. Rabbi Shimon wanted the movement to succeed, because of the good elements in it; but he didn’t want Jews to join it and thus give up their Jewish observance and become indistinguishable from non-Jews.

So Rabbi Shimon started a new branch and it became the biggest in the movement. Rabbi Shimon thought that if the movement he headed looked less like Judaism, it would attract fewer Jews. He moved Shabbat from Saturday to Sunday and instituted different holidays than those observed by Jews. He also wrote a prayer which we said earlier this morning, which we say every Shabbat and Holiday: Nishmat Kol Chai Tivarech et Shimcha -- the soul of every living thing will praise your name, O God.

It might have taken you awhile to realize that Rabbi Shimon Kefach is known to most of the world as St. Peter. What may surprise you is that the story I told about St. Peter writing Nishmat, being sent by the rabbis to infiltrate the Church, and purposely changing it to look less like Judaism and thus be less attractive to Jews, is not something that I made up. While we will never know if this is how things really happened, several ancient Jewish authorities including Rabbenu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, believed this to be the case.

So, with this complex history, how have Jews viewed Christians? It might be surprising to find such a positive view of Christianity in a rabbinic source from almost 1000 years ago. I have spent a good deal of time speaking to Christian audiences and interacting with Christians, and I often remind them that what for Christians is the “Good News” -- which is the literal meaning of the word “Gospel” -- has been bad news for the Jews.

            If you know anything about Jewish history you know the stories. How the early Christians, now thoroughly separated from Judaism and seeking to curry favor with the Roman authorities, blamed the Jews rather than the Romans for Jesus’ death. How the Church believed it was the “new Israel”; that anyone who didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah was doomed to go to hell. When I was younger, I was even taught that the Kol Nidre we recited last night was introduced during the Inquisition for the benefit of the Conversos, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity but still practiced Judaism in secret, and wanted to nullify their Christian vows to God. It wasn’t, because Kol Nidre goes back to the 6th century, hundreds of years earlier; but the formula recited before Kol Nidre, declaring it lawful to pray with transgressors, is from the 15th century and might well have been introduced because of the Conversos.

As we know all too well it was not just anti-Jewish teaching. What French Jewish scholar Jules Isaac came to label the “Teaching of Contempt” led almost inevitably to violence -- expulsions, Crusades, pogroms, and finally the Holocaust. While Nazism was not a Christian movement or an inevitable outgrowth of Christian anti-Judaism, the “Teaching of Contempt” meant that Nazi antisemitism had fertile ground in which to grow. While there were some Christians who risked and even lost their lives to save Jews, many others enthusiastically assisted the Nazis. Most did neither, sitting passively by as millions were slaughtered. But they were prepared to sit by and do nothing precisely because they and their ancestors had long been taught that Jews were less than human. So it’s no surprise that Jews have often been suspicious of Christians and viewed their religion negatively

Jews’ opinion of Christians has been a complex one, though.  Jewish sources have not always spoken with one voice on our relationship with Christians. Maimonides, who generally had a negative view of Christianity, wrote in Laws of Kings that “Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for Mashiach's coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together. . . How will this come about? The entire world has already become filled with the mention of Mashiach, Torah, and mitzvot.” So for Maimonides Christianity, for all its problems, nevertheless paves the way for the era when all would worship God as one.

Jews historically have been mindful of our shared beliefs with Christians. An authority who lived about 800 years ago, Menachem Meiri, ruled that both Christians and Muslims are “nations bound by the ways of religion,” meaning that they subscribe to the same moral principles as do Jews, and that therefore in matters of societal and business interactions, we are to treat them precisely the same as Jews. While there are many laws in both the Torah and later rabbinic writings that allow Jews to treat idolaters differently from Jews in business and other matters, both Meiri and his rough contemporaries Tosafot ruled that neither Christians nor Muslims are idolaters and these laws do not apply.

What is truly remarkable is that these teachings which view Christianity as a positive thing for Gentiles are from 800 to a thousand years ago, when persecution of Jews in many places throughout the Christian world was quite common. These sages understood that it was not Christianity per se which lead to persecution so much as it was perverse human nature and xenophobia.

Judaism has made room for the validity of other religions. The reverse has not always been historically so. For most of its history until very recently, Christianity has taught that unless you are a Christian you cannot gain salvation. Judaism has never taught that. From its very beginning, it was the particular path of a particular people, although it was open to those who felt called to join it.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac. After the angel tells Abraham not to go ahead with the sacrifice, he says that because of Abraham’s faith his descendants will be blessed and furthermore, that all the nations of the earth will be blessed by Abraham’s seed. The blessing and call of Abraham was not to make people into Jews, but rather to teach them to abandon idolatry and to know God as a God of justice. Can Christianity, as Rabbi Shimon Kefach hoped, be a vehicle for doing that?

As long as Christians sought to convert Jews, at best, and kill us, at worst, there is no way that most of us could see Christianity in a positive light. If the Church as it existed up until the early 1960s had been successful in its quest, we would not be here today as Jews if at all.

More recently, however, there have been major positive overtures to Jews from Christians. Beginning in the 1960s, in the wake of the Holocaust, a true Christian teshuvah began. In 1960 the French Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor Jules Isaac met with Pope John XXIII and showed him the evidence he had collected demonstrating how the “Teaching of Contempt” had paved the way for the Holocaust. At the end of the audience, Isaac asked the Pope whether he could “carry away a bit of hope.” The Pope replied, "You have a right to more than hope!"  Shortly thereafter, the Pope set in motion the Second Vatican Council which reminded Christians of Paul’s statement that “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” and that it was the Roman authorities, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus. But even before that, Pope John XXIII engaged in a couple of dramatic gestures. One Saturday morning the papal motorcade was passing by the Great Synagogue of Rome just as services were letting out; the Pope had his car stop and got out to greet and mingle with the worshippers. And on one Good Friday afternoon while officiating at Mass, in the middle of the service he took out a pencil and visibly crossed out a sentence in the liturgy which mentioned “the perfidious Jews.”
It is more than 50 years since Vatican II and much has happened since then -- more than can be discussed in one sermon. While Vatican II took place within the Catholic Church, in is wake many Protestant denominations also took steps to revise what they believed and taught about Jews and Judaism. Even within the Evangelical community there have been positive steps, as I learned this past June when I was one of 20 Jewish leaders chosen to participate in the annual Jewish - Evangelical Dialogue. Of course we know that the Evangelical community is pro-Israel; but Evangelicals are also showing new interest in the Jewish roots of their faith and trying to figure out how to stay true to their own beliefs while respecting the integrity of Jews and Judaism. As Rev. Jose Roberto Escobar, the pastor of the Evangelical church which rents space from us said to me, they consider it an honor to pray in a Jewish space and are anxious not to do anything which would offend our beliefs in any way.

One of the highlights of the Rosh Hashana service is the “Great Aleinu” during the malchuyot section of the Amidah. We end every service with the Aleinu but it was originally written for the High Holy Days and only later, because it was so beloved, was it added to every service. It contains probably the earliest reference in the liturgy to “Tikkun Olam,” our religious commitment to mend the world.
But in the Aleinu we do not merely mention “Tikkun Olam” but we say “l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai,” to mend the world under the sovereignty of God. And we end this prayer by singing “ba-yom ha-hu, yihyeh Adonai echad u’shmo echad” -- on that day the Eternal shall be one and God’s name shall be one.

While there are still fundamental differences between Jews and Christians, we are also very much like a family--related with common origins, interwoven beliefs, and histories. And like with all families, our relationships are complex, and require constant vigilance to remind ourselves of what we have in common in order to work together for tikkun olam.

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