I’ve long argued that we Jews need to stop regarding conservative Christians, especially evangelicals, as the “enemy” and to start thinking of them as allies. So I should be — and am — delighted at some of the recent evolutions of Jewish thinking on this subject. Yet what I know about history urges me to enter one small note of warning before we embrace the followers of Jesus as our long-lost soul brothers.
Not that such an embrace is going to happen tomorrow, with Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League enfolding Mel Gibson of “The Passion” in a big hug. But as Craig Horowitz argues in the September 29 issue of New York magazine, during the last two decades there has been a tremendous sea change in the way Jews regard Christians, especially when it comes to supporting Israel. Over the last couple of years it has became impossible not to notice that the same gruesomely evil entity, Al Qaeda & Co., is the declared enemy equally of American Christians and all Jews. For all the profound theological differences that divide Judaism from Christianity, our differences are irrelevant to the global terrorists who cast us all together into the same category, marked for death as infidels.
The fact that the article was published at all is itself notable since New York magazine is famous for representing a strain of ethnic Manhattan Jewishness that is by habit contemptuous of the Bible Belt.
But then here is Horowitz seeking to calm the old Jewish worry that evangelicals only want to see us rebuild the Temple so that we can get roasted or converted at Armageddon. Horowitz gives the last word to prominent interfaith activist Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein — “we’re now finding out who our real friends are,” namely Christians — and we all know it is the sovereign right of a reporter to give the source he agrees with the last word.
However, amid my delight at the turn of events I’m compelled to note that when going into a sharp turn, a safe driver will tap a little on the brakes. The present scenario, with conservative Christians welcoming Jews as fellow defenders of civilization against radical Islam and looking forward to the rebuilding of the Temple, rings a historical bell.
You may remember the name of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (331-363 C.E.). He was a nephew of the emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Raised a Christian, Julian reverted passionately and publicly back to the old pagan religion. In his day many conservative pagans, not yet Christianized, had come to see Judaism as an ally against the radical new religion that threatened to undermine and effeminize Roman civilization. Emperor Julian took this view.
As Christian sources report, in 362 he called together Jewish representatives from Syria and Asia Minor to tell them he intended to strike against the Christian faith by rebuilding the Temple. Jews blew shofars in celebration and flocked to the ruined holy city. But then an earthquake destroyed the construction work that had already been undertaken on the Temple Mount, causing gases trapped under the platform to explode in flame. Meanwhile, Julian himself was killed in battle against Persia. That was the end of Jewish hopes that the Temple would stand again thanks to Roman patronage, and a terrible mourning ensued.
In all this, while ordinary Jews let themselves be carried away with enthusiasm, the rabbis held back, aloof. There is no record of them meeting with Julian, nor any tribute to him in the Talmud. They were respectful in dealing with the emperors, addressing them as “servants” of their imperial “lord.” But there were no big hugs.
Perhaps they had in mind the talmudic teaching that in the End of Days, the Biblical patriarch Jacob’s brother Esau, standing in rabbinic thought for Rome, would “put on his tallit and sit down with the righteous in Paradise; and the Holy One, blessed be He, will drag him and cast him forth from thence.” Esau would come to be understood as the animating spirit of Christianity.
Like Judaism itself, the rabbis operated in the real world where there was no reason ever to give public offense to other faiths. Yet one notes the necessary tension. Ordinary non-Jews were regarded as individuals, to be judged good or bad only on the basis of their personal deeds. But there was a spiritual entity, Esau — not to be identified with individual Christians, yet somehow mystically infused in their religion — that would always be Esau, whatever the Jewish trappings he might wear, of friendship, of spiritual kinship. One had to bear that in mind.
We would also do well to bear that in mind. A practical alliance of Jews and Christians standing for Israel and against militant Islam is wonderful — in the present circumstances, crucial. But imagining that the relationship can go deeper than that is a temptation that some, including myself, may need to guard against.
David Klinghoffer is the author of “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday).