Modern-day Disputations

By David Klinghoffer

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
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One of the most haunting images in the Torah, found in this week’s parsha, casts a startling light on a question that’s roiling the Jewish religious world at this moment. The issue is interfaith dialogue.

I know, I know, it’s one of the more sleep-inducing items on the official communal agenda. Those two words conjure images of professors droning on endlessly about the need for tolerance, but there really is a new and exciting possibility wrapped in that soporific expression. Well, not “dialogue” exactly, but debate.

The image from the parsha, “Vayishlach,” is of the patriarch Jacob wrestling successfully with an angel. The story in Genesis explains that this is how the people Israel got their name. After the wrestling match, the angel tells Jacob he will be renamed “Israel” because “you have striven with God and with man and have prevailed.” The rabbis note that this angel was the guardian spirit of Jacob’s troublesome brother, Esau. They also note that this same Esau is identified with the founding of Rome — therefore of the Roman church, and by extension of Christianity in general.

We are called “Israel” because we wrestle with and prevail over the spirit of Esau, of Christianity.

Here’s what I propose. Not dialogue, where namby-pamby compromise is the objective, but formal, public debates in appropriate settings. Like the 92nd Street Y. The participants: rabbis and Christian clergy or informed laymen. The subject: Is the Torah eternal? Was Jesus the Messiah?

You often hear it said that Jews — unlike, say, Evangelical Christians — have never relished the opportunity to point out to adherents of other religions that their faith falls short of the truth. Not so!

Traditionally we Jews have indeed believed in using rather aggressive methods of weaning non-Jews from their false gods — see, for example, Maimonides’s alarmingly frank comments on this in his Mishneh Torah, which I hesitate to quote because they are so aggressive (Hilchot Melachim 8:10, 9:1). Another medieval sage, Sforno, wrote that being a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) means “to instruct all of mankind to call in unison on the Name of the Lord and to serve Him with one accord.”

The intent of these great scholars was not that all humans convert to Judaism, but rather that they become believers in the God of Israel as Gentiles — as Noachides, guided in their lives by the seven fundamental moral imperatives associated with the descendants of Noah (namely, all humanity) and outlined in the Talmud’s tractate Sanhedrin.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, medieval Jews put this into practice. Sometimes they were forced by Christian authorities to engage in public “disputations.” Other times, the Jews eagerly sought out such opportunities. So the historian David Berger makes evident in his wonderful book “The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages.”

The Jews composed a delightful literature of polemical books gathering arguments together to beat Christian debaters. The author of one of these advised, “When you speak to them, do not allow your antagonist to change the subject… He does not continue to stick to the point, for when he realizes his inability to verify his statements, he begins to discuss other matters. One who argues with them should be strong-willed… Then, you will find the Gentile thoroughly embarrassed.”

In other words, give him Hell!

The most famous of the disputations, at Barcelona in 1263 — pitting the sage Nachmanides (Ramban) against a converted Jew, Pablo Christiani — was not optional for the Jews involved. King James I commanded it. But in another good book on the subject, Hyam Maccoby’s “Judaism on Trial,” the Ramban’s “joy in combat” comes out clearly.

In religious circles, this idea may at first elicit little Nachmanidean joy. Orthodox Jews are now engaged in an internal disputation of our own. One prominent rabbi, Eugene Korn, has been pushing for dialogue with Christians, but his colleagues point to a 1964 interdict against this, issued by the past century’s greatest sage, Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

Scholars of Soloveitchik’s thought will have to decide whether he meant the ruling to apply only to dialogue per se, where the idea is that somehow the two faiths can be brought closer together. In fact, no such compromise can be possible for believers in Torah. But I trust that the most distinguished Soloveitchik experts, such as Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter of the Soloveitchik Institute, will find that the Rav was not forbidding debate, where the objective is to win.

Certainly our Christians friends will jump at the chance. For us, the advantages of debating them — in a cheerful, urbane, civilized way — would be threefold. First, intellectual battle sharpens your grasp of your own ideas. Nothing compels thought and reflection like being challenged to defend what you had previously taken for granted.

Second, younger Jews need to understand that their ancestral faith is not all “Fiddler on the Roof” sentimentality, but rather a vibrant web of profound concepts that can be defended on the highest intellectual level. For their sentimental elders, Tevye the Milkman may be good enough, but not for us under 40.

Finally, striving of this kind is our destiny. As God’s priestly nation, we’re called to an educational role in the world that must necessarily mean exposing other people to a critique of their faith — all offered, I again emphasize, in a good-natured, unthreatening and humble manner.

This is why God gave us the title “Israel.” If we try to live up to that name, like Jacob, we will prevail.

David Klinghoffer is the author of “Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” and the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Christ: In Search of the Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).

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