This Friday evening is Rosh Hashana, the start of the Jewish New Year. The ten days following are known as the Days of Awe, leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashana celebrates the birth of Creation and humanity. It begins a season of introspection and Teshuva—of repentance, of turning around, of looking forward to a time when all things are made new. It is a time for what the Rosh Hashana prayer Aleinu calls Tikkun Olam—world repair.
The themes of this Jewish season always move me. It reminds me of the language of Ephesians, about a faith that breaks down dividing walls and creates a new humanity. The season’s call to repentance, the introspective part, always reminds me of the Christian baggage that I carry with me as I try to learn how to love my Jewish neighbors.
As a theological mentor of mine once asked, “Is the Gospel good news for our Jewish neighbors?” If we consider our history, Christianity sure has not been. As the last two-thousand years of have shown, anti-Semitism, often fueled by Christian supersessionism, has been deadly and destructive to Jewish communities. The majority of people have a hard time understanding how Christianity can exist without supersessionism. Sometimes called Replacement Theology or Fulfillment Theology, supersessionism’s claim is that God’s covenant with Israel has been replaced or fulfilled by the Church. Christianity claims to have superseded Judaism. This is the religious paradigm that ties the best of our interfaith conversations in knots.
Wrestling with this question led me to Rosemary Radford Ruethers Faith and Fratricide, which made a significant impact on my own spiritual life. Her rebuke of the triumphalist theology of Christendom and its approach to Judaism is something I believe every student of theology should wade through. The core of her argument is that traditional christological claims presenting the Church as the fulfillment of God’s promises to ancient Israel also simultaneously misappropriate all of Israel’s prophetic critique to “the Jews.” It is a right-handed christology, embracing the triumph of Christianity in one hand, while using the other hand to point all scriptural rebuke to the religious other—particularly Judaism.
Ruether explains that this process came about as a merging of the spiritual dualism of Hellenistic thought with the historical dualism of Palestinian messianic thought (51-48). She then shows how anti-Jewish readings of the New Testament have been used to teach that Christ is the spiritual fulfillment of “the Law,” that Jesus is seen as the eschatological hope of Israel, and that “only the Church knew the true meaning of Scripture” (65).
This approach to reading Scripture is known as interpretive imperialism. By making “the Jews” the negative side of the Jewish prophetic material, Christians are unable to see the importance of the tradition that gave birth to the Church—the spiritual practice within Judaism of prophetic self-critique. Christianity has tended to read Jesus’ rebuke of the religious authorities as a critique of Judaism rather than of religious domination. It points the blame at others and prevents us from looking within ourselves.
Rather than superseding Judaism, our faith calls us to stand alongside it. Only with a faith that also embraces our Jewish neighbors can we follow Jesus to undo our spiritual arrogance and engage with the Spirit in the work of world repair.