Shaul Magid. Journal of Religious Ethics. Volume 45, Issue 1. March 2017.
Postliberal theology has been a topic of considerable theological debate over the past few decades. In his 2011 book Another Reformation, Peter Ochs deploys a postliberal theological model for the purpose of developing a sophisticated understanding of the future of interreligious relations. Ochs argues that postliberal theology is a reparative theology focusing on alleviating human suffering. He argues that the Christian idea of supersessionism may be the most challenging for Christians to confront as they explore avenues for making interreligious dialogue more effective. Ochs critiques the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s understanding of Zionism as Jewish Constantianism for being an instance of an ostensibly postliberal theology losing its way. In this essay, I offer a critique of Ochs’s reading of Yoder, claiming that Yoder’s view actually mirrors an important intra‐Jewish debate about the relationship between political power and piety, and retrieves an ingenious contribution of both early Judaism and early Christianity that is effaced in today’s growing Constantinian approach to Christian imperialism and Jewish nationalism.
There is a Jewish joke that goes something like this. A priest, an imam, and a rabbi are summoned to an ecumenical council. The council tells them that they must go back to their communities and decide one thing they are willing to sacrifice in their traditions in order to better cultivate co‐existence and tolerance. They return to their respective communities and after some time return to the council. The priest speaks first: “After intense deliberations we have decided that we are willing to abandon the notion of supersessionism, the idea that the community of believers in Christ now inherit the divine covenant once the provenance of carnal Israel.” The imam then rises to speak and says that “after careful deliberations, the Muslim community has decided to abandon the idea that land conquered by Muslims can never be relinquished to non‐Muslims.” The rabbi then rises and says that this has indeed been a challenge but his community has decided the following. “In the Sabbath liturgy, following the public reading of the Torah and before the final prayers, the community recites two almost identical paragraphs, called Yaqum Purqan, regarding the welfare of the rabbis and sages. We are willing to forego one of those paragraphs.”
The punchline embodies an attitude that has prevailed among many Jews who enter into ecumenical dialogue. As a persecuted minority for most of their history, Jews almost always situate themselves as underdogs so that their sacrifice for the sake of dialogue need not uproot any fundamental principles of their tradition. While historically Jews often have more to gain than Christians or Muslims in interfaith dialogue, they also have felt they had more to lose, and understandably felt the need to protect themselves and their tradition from the main occupational hazard of theological dialogue: abandoning core principles for the sake of toleration, a toleration that, in modernity, they have felt is their right in any case. This tension comes through clearly in Joseph Soloveitchik’s essay “Confrontation” regarding the limits of interfaith dialogue, specifically around theological issues (Soloveitchik; compare Hartman, 180-91; Kimelman). It is even arguably the case with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s more ecumenical essay “Religion is an Island” (Heschel; compare Kasimow and Sherwin). Others such as Jon D. Levenson have questioned the viability of such theological dialogue altogether. While not opposed to interfaith dialogue in principle, Levenson is simply wary of constructing what he considers indefensible commonalities between traditions as a starting point of ecumenical exploration (Levenson).
Contemporary Jewish philosopher and theologian Peter Ochs offers what is in my view one of the most articulate and sophisticated programs for Jewish‐Christian relations in this generation. Opposed to other Jewish theologians who devoted time to this issue, Ochs offers detailed assessments of contemporary Christian thinkers and discusses what needs to happen for true interfaith engagement (and not merely dialogue) to exist. The theological frame of Ochs’s work is what he calls postliberal theology. This essay engages Ochs’s postliberal theology, a theology that is founded on his belief that theology should primarily be a vehicle of reparation, or the alleviation of suffering of individuals and communities. In regards to Christianity, Ochs argues that the main tenet of Christian theology that impedes the achievement of that goal is the doctrine of supersessionism. This doctrine claims that the stature and truth of Christianity is founded on the rejection of Judaism. After an initial assessment of Ochs’s work more generally, I turn to the question of supersessionism through his critique of the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. I then offer a critique of Ochs’s claim that Yoder’s critique of Zionism prevents the unfolding of a true postliberal reparation theology.
Peter Ochs has been part of a team of scholars who have subverted the punch line of the joke and resisted the cautionary tones of thinkers such as Soloveitchik and Levenson (and to a lesser extent, Heschel), taking seriously the notion that if Jews want to enter seriously into a dialogue with Christians and Muslims, they have to confront dimensions of their tradition that make that dialogue difficult if not impossible. This theological‐activist project resulted in three documents. The first was a brief statement known as Dabru Emet first published on September 10th, 2000 in The New York Times (Frymer‐Kensky, Novak, Ochs, Sandmel, and Signer 2000, xv-xviii). Its major claim is that since the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Jews have not adequately responded to the Church’s gesture to the Jews because they have not seriously engaged their own tradition and explored in what ways they could reciprocate Vatican II’s quite courageous revision of its doctrine about the elect status of Jews.
The second document was a scholarly volume Christianity in Jewish Terms (Frymer‐Kensky, Novak, Ochs, Sandmel, and Signer), edited by a team that included Ochs. The volume contains a series of essays on questions of Jewish theology in relation to Christianity. It is an explicit companion to the Dabru Emet statement and adds sources, texture, and context to the challenges Judaism faces in a world where it is no longer treated as a second‐class participant in the struggle to salvage religion within, and not in opposition to, modernity.
The third document, which is actually the earliest, is Ochs’s The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity: Essays in Postcritical Scriptural Interpretations (1993). In that work Ochs engages with Jewish and Christian theologians and Bible scholars to cultivate what he calls a “postcritical” approach, one that does not remain wed to doctrinal claims of scriptural authority but nonetheless rejects, or at least problematizes, modern historicist theories of the formation of the Bible. This volume is in some sense the germ cell of Ochs’s postliberalism; it is only by constructing a logic of postcritical approaches to the Bible that Ochs can then place scripture at the very center of his postliberal project, a place that was occupied by exclusivist claims of scriptural authority in pre‐modern religion and by reason in modern religion. There is, in some sense, a Spinozist inclination here whereby the Bible is both human and sacred, or divine and yet not exclusivist. It is also Spinozist in that Ochs wants to move us away from what he calls “cultural colonialism, the tendency of western thinkers, secular or religious, to interpret the scriptural traditions only according to the conceptual categories and standards set by a few non‐scriptural traditions of philosophy and science” (Ochs, 3). Ochs does not mean to see the Bible as a self‐enclosed document, as Spinoza did, or as the medieval biblical exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra had done earlier (albeit in a very different way). Rather, Ochs argues that we must examine the reasoning of scripture itself to come to a better understanding of the biblical message, regardless of where it originated. Such an approach circumvents the modernist foundationalist critique.
Ochs’s own philosophical and theological contribution to the larger project includes creating a logic that justifies adherence to scriptural authority without succumbing to fundamentalism. It also creates conditions for deep engagement with various scriptural traditions through close readings of scriptures by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and justifies such adherence by thinking about the conditions required for such a reading that is both anti‐foundationalist and still modern. It then translates that professional theological enterprise into language that can be used by religious communities. Finally, this approach thinks through the structures of not what each tradition needs to sacrifice, but how each tradition can do so without either succumbing to the foundationalist notion of questioning all traditional claims or, alternatively, questioning reason itself as a catalyst for understanding tradition. The third way Ochs describes postliberalism is an approach that seeks to counter both postmodernism’s relativizing all truth claims, as well as fundamentalism’s limiting truth to one particular tradition or revelatory experience. The former makes interreligious dialogue largely superfluous while the latter makes it impossible at best, or blasphemous at worst.
Ochs’s most definitive study that encompasses the above objectives is Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews (2011). In this densely argued volume, Ochs takes a two‐pronged approach to his argument that only postliberalism can enable Christianity to truly integrate Judaism into its theological vision. In short, the book’s argument suggests that the main impediment for Christianity in its engagement with Jews and Judaism is the doctrine of supersessionism. Yet this idea is arguably so deeply rooted in Christianity that it cannot easily be excised, if excised at all. In his discussion of Yoder’s work, Michael Cartwright puts it this way: “I do not believe that it is possible for Christian theologians to escape the problem of Christian supersessionism. I do not believe, however, that we do not have to succumb to despair in this matter” (Cartwright, 231). Writing on Yoder, Zionism, and supersessionism, Alain Epp Weaver writes, “If one can be non‐supersessionist while affirming traditional theological claims, then the burden of proof will be on revisionist theological positions” (Weaver, 9). Ochs, Cartwright, and Weaver each understand the centrality of supersessionism and yet equally recognize that genuine Jewish‐Christian dialogue cannot take place until the erasure of Judaism implicit in supersessionism is somehow mitigated. For Ochs, this supersessionist conundrum can be resolved through a new form of reasoning he calls postliberalism.
From Descartes to Kant and beyond, modern foundationalists have attempted to solve this and other doctrinal dilemmas by arguing that theological claims are vulnerable to rational investigation, often diminishing the force and efficacy of those claims as a result. One common story of supersessionism roots it in Christianity’s proximity to Judaism and the extent to which Christianity’s success lies in making a convincing argument that after Christ, God no longer chooses Jews but now chooses Christians. Otherwise, Christians are just wayward Jews or gentile practitioners of an erroneous Judaism. This may be one reason why supersessionism is such a difficult doctrine to extirpate. The modernist method typical of foundationalists, characteristic of what Ochs calls the “Epoch of Assimilation,” opts for a “religion of reason” that may solve the problem of supersessionism, but only at the cost of decimating scriptural authority so that scripture can barely function as an object of belief and a practical system for a believing community. The benefit of the postliberal critique of this modernist method is that, when “neither the things of the created world nor the messages of God’s revealed Scripture are adequately ‘captured’, represented, or defined by humanly constructed claims” (Ochs, 159), both scripture and reason have their proper place. Scriptural authority is not usurped by reason; at the same time, reason is what enables us to understand that authority. This is not a claim of the “divinity” of scripture in any premodern or “Orthodox” sense, but rather a belief in the ability of scripture to provide the tools of its own understanding—tools that are informed, but not determined by, reason. As a result, “‘postcritical scriptural interpretation’ refers to an emergent tendency among Jewish and Christian text scholars and theologians to give rabbinic and ecclesiastical traditions of interpretation both the benefit of the doubt and the benefit of doubt” (Ochs, 3).
In postliberalism, for Ochs, supersessionism is removed while scriptural authority remains. To illustrate this claim in Another Reformation, he examines seven contemporary Christian theologians, all but one still living, to show how their postliberalism is what enables them to posit a believing Christianity without supersessionism. I am interested in a critical examination of one of these figures (the only one not still among the living), John Howard Yoder, the celebrated Mennonite theologian perhaps best known for his theological pacifism. Yoder’s position serves as a central tenet of Ochs’s argument precisely because he is presented as the exception that proves the rule in regards to the connection between postliberalism and the rejection of Christian supersessionism. While Yoder appears squarely inside the postliberal orbit, he also exhibits certain traits that Ochs calls “non‐non‐supersessionist” tendencies, specifically his critique of Jewish nationalism, which Ochs posits as the quintessence of Judaism after the Holocaust. Ochs argues that this “non‐non‐supersessionism” is a consequence of certain non‐ or even anti‐postliberal tendencies in Yoder’s thought. Ochs’s point is that when Yoder deviates from a postliberal perspective, supersessionism returns, perhaps by accident, but more likely by design. I examine Ochs’s claim about Yoder in three ways: first by considering Yoder’s own view on this question; second, by critically examining Ochs’s reading of him; and finally, by offering three Jewish models that share aspects of Yoder’s critique of Jewish nationalism, which may shed light on how Yoder can be useful in Ochs’s desire to create a theology of reparation between Jews and others. My point in this essay is not to challenge Ochs’s basic claim regarding postliberalism as a way for Judaism and Christianity (and Islam) to salvage scriptural authority from secular critique. Rather, my aim is to question whether Yoder’s notions of diasporism and anti‐Constantinianism, and by extension his critique of Zionism—notions Yoder believes are essential components of pacifist religion (and common to both Christianity and Judaism)—are anti‐postliberal, supersessionist, or unhelpful for a theology of reparation.
Peter Ochs on Judaism, Christianity, and Supersessionism
Ochs begins Another Reformation by setting the methodological agenda for his more detailed analysis in the body of the book. He notes at the outset that he does not offer a definitive definition of postliberalism because he believes its contours expand and contract with each thinker he examines. But he does give us some rubrics.
Postliberalism refers to an activity of reformation directed at once to the church or synagogue and to the university (or, more broadly the speculum as a public order). For postliberalism, “reformation” implies both reaffirmation and correction. Like other movements of reform and revitalization, it seeks to criticize certain institutions from within—from deep within, that is, which means according to norms embedded within the practices and histories of those institutions, but not necessarily visible to contemporary practitioners and histories of those institutions. Postliberals often attempt, therefore, to reclaim what they consider prototypical sources and norms of the church or synagogue and of the university (or speculum) and to offer their criticisms from out of these sources and norms. (Ochs, 6)
For Ochs, postliberalism is a reparative project, recognizing the suffering that pre‐modern religion has wrought and also believing that the resources of the tradition itself contain the requisite elements to repair that damage if they are examined with the goal of relieving suffering. Reason alone cannot serve that reparative function for Ochs because it rejects the very scriptural authority that was the cause of the suffering and that therefore needs to be repaired. The relational model of postliberalism is presented to counter such a dyadic model in which opposing elements are irreconcilable. These opposing elements are not only reason and scriptural authority, but also Judaism and Christianity. For Ochs, moving beyond opposition is not moving into unity; it is simply a move to seeing the two elements as different without taking them as also contrary. Ochs often describes this movement beyond opposition in terms of “triadic relations”: for example, relation is not only between one community and another, but a relation of a community with both the divine word and another community that also relates itself to the divine word. When members of each community self‐consciously take both communities as relating to the divine word, the divine word can be used to relieve the very suffering that they caused in the past, that is, when they were viewed as irreconcilable (and only one community was taken to relate to the divine word).
Scripture is a central part of Ochs’s postliberal conception of religion. For Ochs, “Scripture is the prototype as well as the primary book of instruction in how to compose diagrams of repair, which [Charles] Peirce calls ‘existential graphs’” (Ochs, 15). Scripture does not refer to one specific scripture but rather those books that put the reader in relation to the divine, not in the passive sense of “thus says the Lord” but in a relational sense not unlike rabbinics scholar Louis Finkelstein’s (1895-1991) quip “when I pray I talk to God, and when I study [Torah], God talks to me.” Ochs offers a similar assessment. “To study Torah is always to enter into a relationship with a living God, and it is only by way of that relation that Judaism has had the capacity to be resurrected and renewed after each of the Jewish people’s major catastrophes” (Ochs, 5). This is not meant as a platitude; rather the reader of scripture “reasons” with it, talks to it, listens to it, and thus also seeks reason from it, always in a reparative mode, always to alleviate suffering, always to bring Judaism back from the precipice each tragedy presents. This does not mean that all of scripture engages the reader in this way. Some scripture certainly cannot, and this is where the scripture’s relation to the reader enters. The reader must find those components of scripture, and the reasoning underlying them, that can serve the purpose of repair.
Whereas Ochs’s earlier work with Dabru Emet and Christianity in Jewish Terms dealt with the work Jews and Judaism had to do to create new conditions for serious interfaith engagements, in Another Reformation Ochs deals solely with Christianity. He concludes that the deepest work Christians must do to enable their theologies to cohere with this new spirit of engagement in a post-Vatican II world concerns supersessionism, which has been the most common way that Christianity has rejected, repudiated, and ignored Judaism. It is precisely here where postliberalism enters as Ochs’s solution to the dilemma of how Christians can maintain fealty to their scriptural traditions and not succumb to supersessionism. If the rejection of supersessionism requires being modern—undermining scriptural authority by historicizing scripture so that it becomes a fully human and thus a fallible, or even unredeemable, document—it has betrayed not only Christian scripture (and Jewish scripture as well) but the Christian community.
Below I will examine a little more closely one case in Ochs’s book, that of Yoder. Yoder is perhaps the most vexing case precisely because he seems to break the rules by opting out of a fully non‐supersessionist theology while remaining wed to a postliberal approach.
John Howard Yoder on Judaism, Christianity, and Supersessionism
John Howard Yoder (1927-1997) was a Mennonite theologian most celebrated for his theology of Christian pacifism. His Anabaptist approach, embodying a contemporary version of what is known as the Radical Reformation, seeks to recover the apostolic Christianity of the Jesus movement. His work is strongly anti‐Constantinian and opposes the politicization of religion writ large; Yoder remarked that “there is no alternative but painstakingly, feebly, repentantly, patiently, locally, to disentangle Jesus from the Christ of Byzantium and of Torquemada” (Yoder, 255). A believer in scripture as the carrier of the divine word, Yoder fits nicely into Ochs’s postliberal model. In fact, Yoder was an inspiration and teacher to many whom Ochs sees as the core of Christian postliberal thinkers, including Stanley Hauerwas and Michael Cartwright. In Another Reformation, Yoder serves as the linchpin gadfly for Ochs’s thesis that postliberalism logically produces a non‐supersessionist Christianity. He plays this role because, while some of Yoder’s work indeed exhibits a non‐supersessionist approach, his unrelenting pacifism yields an anti‐Zionism that Ochs calls a “non‐non‐supersessionism” because it amounts to the erasure of the nationalistic dimension of Judaism as representing anything authentic or worth saving. Yoder’s belief in the shared roots of both apostolic Christianity and early Judaism, as well as his claim that Jesus and Paul never rejected Judaism tout court but only rejected a certain form of Judaism, are part and parcel of Yoder’s anti‐Constantinian stance. His understandings of both Christianity and Judaism in the first century CE serve as his opposition to progressive modernist religion. In this respect, Yoder’s theology is a good representative of postliberalism. Nonetheless, he also saw Zionism as nothing less than a Jewish Constantinianism, which does the same damage to Judaism that Constantinianism does to Christianity.
In a series of essays published as The Jewish‐Christian Schism Revisited, edited by Ochs and Cartwright, Yoder set out what he believed to be the shared roots of Judaism and Christianity, albeit refracted through very particular lenses. Yoder’s understanding of “Judaism” and “Christianity” is often quite idiosyncratic and those shared roots, as he understands them, are what bring him to what Ochs deems a new kind of supersessionism. Yoder used his discussion of the “Jewishness” of Jesus and the Jesus movement as way of fortifying his vision of the “free church movement” as a “Jewish” vision. In his view it is Judaism’s post‐destruction character that is the basis of his critique of Zionism. On the question of Jesus’s Jewishness, Yoder’s argument very much resembles those of scholars who, in different ways, argue that Jesus’s fealty to the Judaism of his time remained very strong. And yet, Yoder had different ends in mind. The understanding of “Judaism” that he judged to be authentic is something that existed (if it existed at all) in a thin slice of history after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and before the redaction of the Mishnah in the second century, a slice that overlaps with the writing of the Gospels. This Judaism was a religion very much in a liquid state of formation. It was a de‐politicized Judaism thinking its way through its newly realized de‐territorialized fate. It was a Judaism trying to negotiate its often universalistic prophetic heritage as a minority culture. It is precisely here in this relatively narrow historical corridor, after the final loss of political power and before the abandonment of what Yoder considers Judaism’s great missionizing project and the development of what he determines to be the ethnic enclavism of rabbinic Judaism, where Judaism and Jesus meet and the truth of each most forcefully shines through the face of the other. Yoder argued that it is this moment that requires revisiting if we want to retrieve the greatness of both Judaism and Christianity, or Judaism as Christianity, or Christianity as authentic Judaism. In short, the ostensible schism happened for Yoder when Christianity lost its way and succumbed to the lure of political power (Constantine) and Judaism responded to powerlessness by turning in on itself and ultimately constructing a textual tradition whereby its power moved fairly quickly, and for good reason, from the political to the pietistic and ritualistic (Mishnaic Judaism).
Somewhat surprisingly, Yoder considered rabbinic Judaism to be the first stage of the “Christianization” of Judaism. This intentionally provocative claim requires explanation. Yoder did not argue that halakha (Jewish normative law) is a product of “Christianization.” Halakha was arguably the wedge, or one wedge, that separated Judaism from Christianity. And yet that is precisely Yoder’s understanding of “Christianization.” Yoder posited that the period of the Mishnah (the second century CE) marked a period in which Judaism turned inward, and opted to largely abandon its prophetic stance toward the world. This, he argued, was in large part a response to an emerging Christianity. It is worth quoting Yoder at length here to capture the turns in his argument.
We noted before that the Judaism of Jeremiah, of Hillel, of Jesus, and of Johanan ben Zakkai was a missionary faith. It then represented an adaptation to Christianity when the rabbis by the time of the Mishna abandoned their missionary openness, leaving the function to the messianic Jews (i.e. the Christians)… Only now, after the schism could it make sense to spell out the argument that Gentiles do not need Torah because they can make it into the age to come by keeping the rules of Noah… . In any case, Judaism after the schism turns out to be an ethnic enclave, less missionary than before, if not committed to a near rejection of the accession of Gentiles to members in their community. Thus the abandonment of the missionary vision and action is a kind of backhanded adjustment, not to the Gentile world in general, but to Christianity. Non‐missionary Judaism is a product of Christian history [italics in text]. For Jews to be non‐missionary means that they have been “Christianized”: they have accepted a slot within a context where telling the Gentiles about the God of Abraham is a function that can be left to the Christians. (Yoder, 106)
It is not radical to notice that Mishnaic Judaism deviates in significant ways from at least some prophetic teachings while cohering to others; Yoder’s text focuses particularly on Jeremiah 29:4-7 and the message of exile as divine will. The reason for such deviation remains open to scholarly debate. The role Christianity played in rabbinic self‐fashioning has become a contested issue among historians of ancient Israel. While we need not get into the intricacies of these historical debates, suffice it to say that Yoder’s seemingly ahistorical propositions here are not without at least some historical weight. That is, we now know the rabbinic sages had at least some exposure to Christianity, or Christian circles, and in later centuries likely knew of some forms of the gospels. Earlier studies such as R. Travers Herford’s Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (1903), or more recently Johann Maier’s Jesus von Nazareth in der talmudischen Uberleieferung (1978) and Peter Schafer’s Jesus in the Talmud (2007), explore the ways that the rabbis responded to what they knew of Christianity. The question thus is not whether the rabbis knew or cared about Christianity, but rather what they knew, whence they knew it, and how they responded to it.
Yoder, however, made a different claim. He suggested that Judaism as we know it—that is, Mishnaic Judaism and its spiritual progeny—formed in part as a response to Christianity not via Christianity as a Jewish heresy but through the notion that Christianity now fulfilled a missionary function that Jews and Judaism no longer needed to fulfill. One may perhaps extend Yoder’s claim beyond where he would take it and claim that the inherent tension that always existed between Israel as a tribal enclave and as the carrier of a universal mission (as seen in the prophetic books of Isaiah, Micah, Amos) could be resolved through Christianity. While such a claim cannot be historically verified, certainly not in the monolithic way of Yoder’s framing, we do see it emerge in at least two earlier instances in Jewish history: in the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides’s notion that perhaps Christianity and Islam exist in order to pave the way for the final Jewish redemption (although both deviate from Judaism, the only “true” religion), and in the modern Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s notion in The Star of Redemption (1985) that Christianity fulfills an outward function to expose the world to monotheism while Judaism necessarily exercises the inward function of protecting the Hebrew Bible’s true monotheistic core. Maimonides may have been asking the question of why God brought Christianity and Islam into existence in the first place if Judaism is the true religion, while Rosenzweig, in early twentieth‐century Germany with his own complicated relationship to both Judaism and Christianity, was trying to posit how both Judaism and Christianity are necessary for one another and thus need to enable each other to continue to serve their divine purpose.
In any case, this conception of rabbinic Judaism as the result of “Christianization” also implies that rabbinic Judaism—“Judaism” as we know it—is younger than Christianity. In at least one place Yoder said this outright: “It will take some time and testing to get used to the awareness that Judaism as we now know it, i.e. Rabbinic Judaism, is younger than Christianity—and in part a reaction thereto—but this is an indispensable straightening out of our categories” (2003, 154). The ostensible audacity of this claim (for does not Judaism come before Christianity?) is supported in part by Daniel Boyarin in his recent essay “Semantic Differences: Or ‘Judaism’/’Christianity’” (2007). There, Boyarin argues that the very notion of “religion” is a Christian invention and thus “Judaism” (as a religion) is, in fact, a product of its adaptation of that category to define itself and is, in a way, a reaction to Christianity. Boyarin would not say that Mishnaic Judaism abandoned its missionizing to Christianity but he does say, most compellingly in his recent book, A Travelling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora (2015), that the rabbis in large part undermined the intrinsic connection between land and people by making the text the central notion of “Zion.” Among many other rabbinic texts, he cites one that reads, “‘Zion’ is nothing but the yeshiva where they are distinguished in Torah and Mitzvot” (Boyarin, 44). Boyarin comments that here “The Jews of late antiquity had built Jerusalem in Babylonia’s green and pleasant land; but for most, their orientation toward the old Zion was vital throughout all of late antiquity … The Babylonian rabbinic claim to have replaced the Land of Israel, to having become a new Land of Israel, while surely not held by all, is thus very well established” (Boyarin, 45, 46). Yoder’s description of a de‐territorialized religion (exilic Judaism)—“the primary vehicle of identity definition is a text which can be copied, and can be read anywhere”—coheres with Boyarin’s basic thesis regarding identity formation in the Talmud (Yoder, 187).
In the end, though, Yoder made a different claim than Maimonides, Rosenzweig, or Boyarin, the last of whom views the rabbinic revolution as a revolution of diaspora while Yoder views it as the sacrifice of precisely that which made Judaism (and the Jesus movement) so important. Yoder claimed the Mishnaic move undermined Judaism’s true greatness in regards to its choice to promote ethnic enclavism; this ethnic dimension of Judaism is something that Boyarin celebrates, albeit with considerable caveats. But Yoder would indeed celebrate Boyarin’s claim that the centrality of Judaism is its grappling with scripture (or, the Talmud), and that its relationship to God through scripture should never be replaced by a belief in the Jewish people (as opposed to a belief in God) or in the land.
For Yoder’s anti‐Constantinian position, “Christianizing” is a negative term in a very specific way; it does not mean becoming Christian but rather abandoning authentic Judaism as a response to (Constantinian) Christianity. There are two further instantiations of Judaism’s “Christianizing” in Yoder’s thought. The first is modern progressive Judaism’s “theological assimilation” to Christianity (a Christianity that he believes had already lost its way) or the acquiescence to pluralism as a religious identity. For heuristic purposes let us call this Reform Judaism. In this sense Reform Judaism mistakenly became like a Christianity that was not truly Christian in Yoder’s view. The second form of Jewish “Christianization” for Yoder, and the one that is so problematic for Ochs, is Jewish nationalism or Zionism. For Yoder, Zionism is also a particular adaptation of Judaism to modernity. The claim that Zionism is “Christianization” in some way strikes at the very core of the problem. In today’s world, to deny Jewish nationalism its role in Jewish identity, or to view Zionism as the problem as Yoder certainly does, amounts to a kind supersessionism. Judaism without Jewish nationalism, without a commitment to the land, without Jewish political autonomy excludes a large part of the contemporary Jewish community. Thus non‐nationalist Judaism, one closer to Yoder’s view, becomes the victim of a kind of inner‐Jewish supersessionism (see Magid).
Interestingly, classical Reform Judaism made claims not so distant from Yoder on three counts: first, in its rejection of land as the center of Jewishness, that is, its belief that diaspora was the best way for Judaism to flourish; second, in its attempt to revive prophetic “ethical monotheism” that had its own universalizing components, including a rejection of classical Jewish notions of messianism; and third, in its identification with the Jesus movement (or pre‐Constantinian Christianity) as one model of its spiritual project (see Eisen, 263-96). For Yoder, though, it was the assimilatory tendency of Reform that served as the target of his ire, principally the way it acquiesced to Constantinian Christianity perhaps without even quite understanding that, on Yoder’s reading, Reform Judaism was becoming part of the problem as a result. For Yoder, by assimilating, Reform Judaism undermined its core Jewish message. And by becoming nationalized, Zionism did the same.
What exactly is Yoder’s problem with Zionism, and why do I think his attempt to sever Zionism from Judaism may help in the creation of a new kind of reparative theology? His anti‐Zionism is not what you might think, that is, it is not an antagonism against the right of the Jews to a homeland or even a rejection of the need of the Jews for a place of refuge. Rather, it is the way Zionism undermines the essential message of Judaism’s greatness. Yoder believed that Zionism is a form of Jewish Constantinianism, and therefore that Zionism undermines the separation between church and political and military power that he believes is central to Jesus’s (Jewish) contribution to the world. In addition, he believed that Zionism makes Jewish pacifism almost impossible. But just as problematic for Yoder is the extent to which Zionism removes religion as a requirement of Jewish identity.
The State of Israel models itself on western thinking. It defines Jews in such a way that most of them may be unbelieving or unobservant … the State of Israel is a state but no longer a believing community. Once the state was created, the separateness of Jewishness as an ethnic body is no longer needed as a base for religion or vice versa… Committed Judaism, i.e. a discernable people ready thoroughly and sacrificially to order their lives around their convictions as to the substance of the Torah, is a minority sect in Israel just as is Christianity, and just as they both are today in Western Europe. (Yoder, 107)
There are many ways one can unpack this passage. One way is to say that Yoder’s claim is that Zionism replaces religion with peoplehood and thus undermines Judaism’s central and most powerful message. One illustrative example might be Golda Meir’s comment to Hannah Arendt: “I want you to understand, as a socialist I do not believe in God, I believe in the Jewish people” (Knott, 440). The notion of belief in a “people” as a substitute for belief in God is not uncommon in certain secular Zionist circles. The politicization of religion and thus reification of peoplehood in some forms of Zionist thought and the extent to which “people” replace God would, for Yoder, significantly undermine the very contribution Judaism makes to human civilization and erase the very reason he views it as the backbone of his “free church movement.” One could surely contest this claim by citing the deeply religious nature of some streams of Zionism, especially in our contemporary world. But this too would bother Yoder, since the very foundation of religious Zionism envisions God as party to the politicization of Judaism, even (or in some cases, precisely) through military means.
Yoder thus has two basic problems with Zionism: first, its notion of the landedness of Judaism, that is, that Judaism or Jewishness is fulfilled primarily by settling the land; and second, the way that Jewish nationalism in complex ways inserts ethnic identity as a companion, at times a replacement, and at other times a fulfillment, of religion. Thus, for Yoder, Zionism is the final stage of the “Christianization” of Judaism in that the state, like Christendom, is no longer a “believing community” as its members are defined by fully secular means.
This final dimension of Yoder’s thoughts on Judaism that merit brief mention before turning to Ochs’s critique of Yoder, is the notion of exile, or diaspora, as blessing rather than curse, something Yoder gleans from Jeremiah 29:4-7. This reading is tied to Yoder’s argument that Judaism is originally a missionizing religion and also his critique of Jewish nationalism in that in exile Jews can better disseminate the true message of God’s word that they carry. The Talmudic dictum that “Israel was only exiled so that it could make converts” (B. Pesahim 87b) is one way to articulate Yoder’s view, although for Yoder exile is not a temporary state but a permanent one. In fact, exile is the state that embodies the very truth of Judaism and makes it a stellar exemplar of his “free church movement.” Perhaps in some way for Yoder the very existence of what he calls “galut [exile] as vocation” ameliorates the enclavism that the rabbis instituted (Yoder, 190). For Yoder, Zionism undermined Judaism the way Constantinianism undermined Christianity (see Ochs, 151).
So how can Yoder’s critique of Zionism and his call for severing the links between Judaism and Zionism help in the alleviation of suffering? I will offer two brief suggestions. First, Yoder’s critique of Zionism is founded at least in part on the way it uses scripture to promote and justify political power. In doing so, for him, it not only undermines scriptural religion’s greatest contribution to human civilization but also serves as the justification for the right, and not merely the need, of such political power. While Zionism is arguably still a secular ideology Zionism’s use of scripture’s a‐historical referents to justify history itself makes a critique tricky. Without religion, Zionism would have to justify its actions solely in the historical and political realm without reference to divine right or privilege. While there is certainly suffering in Israel/Palestine from both sides and thus Israel is not the only guilty party, in Yoder’s view as I read him, Israel’s continued attachment to its scriptural roots to justify its claims not only gives them an a‐historical foundation, it also easily effaces the more compassionate and less land‐centered dimensions of the Jewish tradition that could be invoked to alleviate some of the suffering it has caused.
Second, for most of its history Zionism existed alongside other Jewish ideologies, each drawing from the tradition to make its case (Halbertal). Some were cosmopolitan (Marxism, Bundism, along with others), and some traditional (ultra‐Orthodox anti‐Zionism). In the past half‐century we have witnessed the rise of Zionist hegemony among Jews worldwide. While the reasons for this shift may be understandable, one consequence has been a narrowing of the “Jewish” lens to view the tradition solely through the Zionist perspective. In my view, Yoder’s critique of Zionism as Jewish Constantinianism holds the potential to enable a kind of inner‐Jewish reparation, whereby dormant dimensions of the tradition that do not fit into the Zionist narrative can once again be given a voice. It may be true that Yoder’s critique too easily succumbs to a kind of essentialism that overreaches the goals I am suggesting. However, if we read him critically, that is, if we are open to his critique without necessarily agreeing with his conclusions (which I argue below may be more ambiguous than Ochs thinks), Yoder can help contribute to reviving a more multivalent map of Jewish ideologies.
Ochs’s Critique of Yoder on Zionism and Supersessionism
Ochs’s chapter “The Limits of Postliberalism” in Another Reformation is a critical reading of Yoder’s theological critique of Zionism. For Ochs, Yoder’s critique introduces a non‐non‐supersessionism into an otherwise postliberal Christian theology. We must remember that for Yoder Zionism is not troubling because it is damaging as a political movement, but because it is a theological deviation from Judaism’s “Jeremianic” trajectory, a trajectory that he cherishes as one of its great theological innovations. When Ochs uses the term “non‐non‐supersessionism” to describe Yoder’s position, he is trying to capture the fact that Yoder’s political theology does not fit into any of the common categories of supersessionism enough to warrant labeling him a supersessionist. To understand the various contours of supersessionism I suggest using R. Kendall Soulen’s three types of supersessionism and adding a fourth suggested by Lindbeck: economic supersessionism, “the ultimate obsolescence of carnal Israel [as] an essential feature of God’s one overarching economy of redemption of the world”; punitive supersessionism, the belief that “God abrogates God’s covenant with Israel on account of Israel’s rejection of Christ”; and structural supersessionism, in which the exclusion of Israel constitutes the “standard canonical narrative” of how scripture is interpreted (Soulen, 31). Lindbeck adds another dimension he calls the “erasure of the Jews,” not necessarily the rejection of the Jews in classical supersessionism, but simply not considering them as part of the Christian vision of the world. I agree with Ochs that none of these categories would apply to Yoder.
In fact, not only does Yoder not want to excise Jews or Judaism from his theological vision, he wants to use Judaism—an exilic and pre‐Mishnaic Judaism—as the very basis for his articulation of Christianity’s true theological vision. So perhaps we can re‐name Yoder’s non‐non‐supersessionism “unintended supersessionism.” In addition, we need to consider how Yoder’s positive view of Judaism is founded upon his understanding of Judaism as laying the foundation for pre‐Constantinian Christianity. That is, for Yoder, Judaism is arguably legitimate only when it serves Christian ends. One could argue that this is also a kind of supersessionism, because it refuses to let Jews be simply Jews. Yet it offers a reading of Judaism that Zionism has all but erased.
Here I would like to briefly mention my method in reading Yoder to sharpen my difference from Ochs. One of Ochs’s great contributions in Another Reformation is that as a Jewish theologian he confronts Christianity and its weaknesses in a methodical and generous manner. That is, he offers an outsider’s view of Christian theology in an attempt to create the necessary conditions for his postliberal theology. Yoder, like Ochs, can also be read partly as an outsider. He stood outside Judaism and offered a critique of it, mostly in the way that it fails to live up to its originary and ingenious past. It is true that Yoder was less invested in reparation than Ochs; as a result, Yoder often presented his views in a more strident and uncompromising manner. This is why I read Yoder critically by distinguishing between his critique, his intent, and his conclusions. Ochs may be correct that his conclusions are not postliberal. But I maintain that his critique of Zionism may provide an opportunity for a postliberal thinking that Ochs seems to ignore, since Zionism, although a reparation for the suffering of the Jews, has also caused in its wake the suffering of another community (that is, Palestinians), and this suffering also needs reparation. Here I think Yoder’s critique can inform our thinking in regards to how Jews should, or could, act in a position of power. Reading Yoder in this way enables us to draw from his constructive critique of Judaism’s Constantinian move. Ochs’s reading of Yoder as a non‐non‐supersessionist thinker rightly draws attention to the problematic nature of some of his conclusions, and even his intent, but in doing so loses the opportunity to better integrate his critique into the postliberal project.
Yoder bases his reparation of the schism between Judaism and Christianity on the notion that Jesus never really rejected Judaism because there was no normative Judaism in Jesus’s time to reject. Rather, he rejected one form of Judaism in favor of another. Explaining Yoder’s position, Ochs writes:
Neither Jesus nor Paul, nor the apostolic communities rejected normative Judaism… . If there was no such thing as normative Judaism no one could have univocally rejected it or be rejected by it… . What Jesus himself proposed to his listeners was nothing other than what he claimed as the normative vision of a restored and clarified Judaism, namely, the proper interpretation of the Jewish scriptures and tradition for this present, in light of the New Age which he heralded. (Ochs, 141)
The notion of the liquidity of Judaism in Jesus’s time, whether there was a “Judaism” or “Judaisms,” is a matter of contemporary scholarly debate. In any case, Yoder’s position here is certainly neither particularly extreme nor supersessionist.
Ochs lists four aspects of Yoder’s “modernist” and non‐postliberal stance that Ochs claims result in a non‐non supersessionist position: Judaism is exilic, Judaism is not a landed religion, Judaism is non‐violent, and Judaism is missionizing. Ochs’s main concern seems to be Yoder’s claim that exclusive authentic Judaism is the Judaism of exile, and that exile is not merely a way‐station for the Messiah, but the very completion of the messianic task. (Ironically, given Yoder’s critique of Reform Judaism, many classical Reform thinkers made similar arguments.) Ochs claims that Yoder overstates the case for exile made by Jeremiah as the sine qua non of Judaism and understates—even erases—the intrinsic tie rabbinic Judaism has to the land of Israel. These moves represent a departure from postliberalism because they ignore the notion of reparation in regards to the Jewish historical experience of persecution (Ochs, 146).
On one level, it is hard to contest such criticisms. Historically, literarily, and theologically speaking, Yoder’s exclusionary vision is non‐non‐supersessionist in that it excludes those who maintain a different position regarding Judaism’s authenticity. Ochs writes, “Yoder’s exclusive choice for an exclusively exilic Judaism shares the same logic as the Maccabees’ and Zealots’ choice for an exclusively nonexilic Judaism of land and national power” (Ochs, 152). This is an interesting sentence for what it does not say. What it does not say is that the exclusively nonexilic Judaism is precisely what mainstream Zionism proffers, illustrated by its foundational principle of “rejection of the diaspora” (see Schweid). In considering only ancient ideologies and not the modern ones that informed Yoder’s theological critique (contemporary Judaism and Zionism), Ochs has arguably concealed from his reader the very instantiation of Yoder’s critical concern. I argue that this context is a crucial part of Yoder’s assessment. In fact, in his list of postliberal criteria, Ochs writes that postliberalism must express an “openness that meets the needs and crises of a particular time and history” (Ochs, 145). But what if the particular time requires not so much an openness as it does a narrower alternative in order to counter a dominant trend in need of repair? Balance is sometimes created by introducing the logic of a counter‐trend, not necessarily to be adopted in full, but to be considered in the larger sphere of religious life.
Setting this aside for the moment, Yoder was not blind to a critique such as Ochs’s.
We cannot not be selective; we can ask that the selectivity should contribute to reciprocal recognition, finding in the other what one needs, for the sake of one’s own integrity, to esteem… . I make no apology for reading the vast melee of the Jewish experience in such a way that Yochanan is more representative than Menachem, Abraham Joshua Heschel than Ben Gurion, Arnold Wolf than Meir Kahane, Anne Frank than Golda Meir. What goes on here is not that I am co‐opting Jews to enlist them in my cause. It is that I am finding a story, which is really there, coming all the way down from Abraham, that has the grace to adopt me. (Yoder, 115)
Yoder argued that making a case, or claim, of a lost message, or jewel, buried in the mire of history is not necessarily to exclude the multivocality of a tradition but instead to choose particular lenses through which to see it. Boyarin makes a similar claim and argues that the Talmud is a “Diaspora Manifesto #1” (Boyarin, 33-52). Boyarin readily acknowledges alternative readings of the Talmud and only wishes to present his reading as a viable, and not exclusive, one. Boyarin certainly thinks it is also one that can withstand critique or he would not have written the book. I think Yoder suggested something similar in the claim that he was “finding a story, which is really there, coming all the way down from Abraham.” He did not deny the existence of other narratives, for example the Zionist narrative that stretches from Bar Kokhba to Bar Giora (two ancient Jewish war heroes) to Zev Jabotinsky (the founder of a militant form of secular Zionism). He suggested, however, that that story does not serve the purposes he sought—neither between Jews and Christians, nor, I would add, purposes internal to Judaism itself. In fact, I would assume he considers the Zionist story simply a continuation of the Jewish‐Christian schism, just as militant Christian evangelicalism is a continuation of the schism. If we bind ourselves to a reparative theology when we commit ourselves to postliberalism—as Ochs has repeatedly argued—would that not create the possibility that certain forms of Judaism or Christianity might be marginalized in favor of others that would serve that reparative purpose?
Ochs claims that Yoder’s anti‐Zionism is dyadic, and thus not reparative; therefore, it flies in the face of postliberal sentiments. His reasoning is fourfold, of which I will mention three cases. First, Yoder argued against any “normative” Judaism and then claimed that “rabbinic Judaism is a fall from what Judaism ought to be.” For Ochs, the “ought” seems to imply the very normativity that Yoder denied to Judaism. Second, Yoder claimed that because Judaism indeed flourished in exile, its exile is a consequence of divine will. Zionism therefore subverts Judaism’s true nature. In Ochs’s view, this undermines the role of the land in exilic Jewish life and literature, making it counter to Judaism’s major contribution. Third, to essentialize Judaism as pacifist is antithetical to Judaism’s central mission (Ochs, 161-62). This essentially makes Zionism impossible. Ochs considers this a kind of foundationalism in that “he offers such propositions about Israel’s life; that Jewish life in exile is a direct illustration of the meaning of Jesus’ narrative. The problem is in the clarity and finality of this claim” (Ochs, 161). That is, Yoder ignored accepted traditions in favor of “intuitive” alternatives.
Rather than focusing on Yoder’s ostensible silencing of alternative voices—all theologies are guilty of that to some degree—it would be more constructive to consider how Yoder’s vision could contribute to our present climate regarding the limitations many of us experience when we dare to think outside the Zionist narrative that is now the very standard that defines Jewish thinking. Today we are arguably not living in a postliberal Jewish world but very much a “dyadic” world that makes hegemonic claims to Jewish legitimacy. One solution to this contextual quagmire is proffered by Boyarin in his response to Yoder. Boyarin suggests expanding diaspora beyond the diaspora/homeland binary and viewing it not as a state of disorder or even place at all but rather a state of normalcy, one not limited to exile but one that is also a template for framing a landed existence. Diasporas can exist in Israel too, in the land itself, to prevent the land from becoming the occasion for political hegemony and discrimination (Boyarin, 259). There is no doubt that the stories of the Davidic monarchy, and the scriptural books of Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah tell a story quite different than Jeremiah 29. Yoder admits that as much as Boyarin does. But it is legitimate to ask if these are the stories that need repeating today. Are these the only stories that are needed today? Is not our own post‐Holocaust moment also a post‐1967 (or post‐1948) moment? This is not to erase them as much as to “repair” them by rethinking categories of landedness that need not result in a hegemonic regime that exercises political power as it simultaneously makes a claim of Jewish legitimacy. “Negation of the Diaspora,” a cornerstone of classical Zionism, is also supersessionism of a kind. In fact, it excludes almost half of the Jewish people and a myriad of Jewish ideologies that have flourished since the advent of modernity. Both Yoder and Boyarin in different ways address this problem by decoupling Judaism from Zionism in a way that would enable both to exist but disable the political theology that emerges when they become fused (this may arguably result in a post and not an anti‐Zionist perspective) (see Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin, 53; and Weaver, 61).
A Critique of Ochs’s Reading of Yoder: New Voices
As a way to offer a constructive critique of Ochs’s reading of Yoder, I would like to briefly present three different Jewish positions that may help us understand how Yoder’s theological critique of Zionism’s political theology, even if we do not accept it as it is presented, might help Jews come to terms with the challenges of political hegemony while recognizing Yoder’s point about Jewish genius as he understands it. That is, even if Ochs is right that Yoder is not postliberal in his critique of Zionism in regards to his conclusions, Yoder’s view may still contribute to postliberalism by contributing to a theology of reparation that seeks to relieve suffering. I will explore this after my three examples.
In all three cases below there is an attempt to decouple Zionism from Judaism which may be a way to salvage both while mitigating the negative dimensions each contributes to the other. The first is an early to mid‐twentieth century movement in Palestine/Israel called the Canaanite movement led by Israeli poet Yonatan Ratosh (1908‐1981); the second is Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979), the Hasidic grand rabbi of Satmar who is responsible for contemporary ultra‐Orthodox anti‐Zionism; and the third is the American Jewish philosopher Steven Schwarzschild (an important interlocutor for Yoder). In many ways, these are three failed experiments and as such they have largely been either erased (the Canaanites), discredited (Teitelbaum), or ignored (Schwarzschild). Yet all three address Yoder’s concerns about the extent to which Zionism, as nationalism and landedness, has sullied what Judaism has to offer. Each in different ways uncouples Judaism from Zionism, in one case, to create a new Hebraic civilization (Canaanites), in another case to invalidate Zionism as a form of Jewish “religious” heresy (Teitelbaum), and in the third case to make us think more carefully about the ways in which Jewish nationalism and militarism challenges a crucial part of the covenant (Schwarzschild).
The usefulness of using these cases as illustrations is that they all promote in very different ways Yoder’s critique of Constantinian Judaism in the form of Zionism from inside the Jewish tradition. This is to say that Yoder’s critique, knowingly or not, is part of an inner‐Jewish debate about the relationship between religion and politics. The Zionist hegemony that dominates contemporary Jewish discourse, even at the scholarly level, often erases the robust debates that took place when Zionism was still in its infancy regarding the place of political power as applied to Judaism before the messiah. Even as these theopolitical debates may have been largely silenced due to historical circumstances, an honest assessment of the impact, vulnerabilities, and danger of political power in Judaism is still worthwhile not only in regards to the present reality but also in order to better understand the complexities of the Jewish case in history.
Ratosh and Teitelbaum in particular have largely been rejected in contemporary Jewish discourse on these questions for a variety of reasons even as Teitelbaum still has an audience of followers who adhere to his views. Historically, the establishment of the state defined as a “Jewish” state, the ways in which its secular founders and leaders refused to view the Zionist project as severed from Judaism (for ideological and pragmatic reasons), the increased role of religion in Zionism, and the continuing conflict with Israel’s Arab neighbors and Arab Israelis, made Ratosh’s critique largely irrelevant. In terms of Teitelbaum, due to his strident depiction of Zionism as a sin worse than the golden calf, and the reason for the Holocaust, his views have gained little traction in a largely modern and secularized world. In this sense, I think introducing Yoder to the conversation enables us to re‐think this position anew, and now from an outside perspective, from one who both venerates Judaism in what he determines is its originary genius and views it as incurring the same errors as Constantinian Christianity. In some sense, even as his view also has its stridency, it may be less so than Ratosh and surely less so than Teitelbaum.
In the early twentieth century, the Hebrew poet Yonatan Ratosh formed a small circle of artists and writers known as the Canaanites. They made the case that for Zionism to succeed it needed to be totally severed from Judaism. The extent to which the Canaanites were Zionist at all depends on how one understands the criteria for the term. They are certainly not the only ones who sought to decouple Zionism from Judaism but they are perhaps the most radical and uncompromising (Diamond, 9-23).
Avidly secular, the Canaanites believed that Zionism in principle offered the possibility of a new Hebrew civilization that would accompany (and on some readings, replace) the older diasporic “Jewish” one. It would avoid the Jew/Gentile schism by making all inhabitants of the land of Israel, Jew or Gentile, citizens of this new Hebrew civilization. In this vision, Israel would not be a “Jewish” state but a Hebrew one. For the Canaanites (not unlike Yoder), Judaism was a product of the diaspora and it should remain that way. Judaism can remain as it is needed for Jews to survive in exile. That is its origin and that remains its place. The Canaanites thought the New Hebrew civilization would replace the old diasporic “Jewish” one (here very much unlike Yoder) but radical separation between Judaism and Zionism was necessary for Israel to be successful. Otherwise it would simply turn into an ethnic enclave ruled by the dictates of an outdated religion and the non‐Jewish inhabitants who had been living there for generations would be excluded.
In many ways, the position of Teitelbaum, the avidly ultra‐Orthodox anti‐Zionist, is structurally similar to the Canaanites’ view, for opposite reasons and toward opposite ends. Teitelbaum viewed Zionism (understood as the very fulfillment of Judaism) as the new anti‐Christ of the generation preceding the messiah. It was the final divine test Jews needed to withstand to merit redemption. For Teitelbaum, Judaism and Zionism are diametrically opposed and any form of secular Judaism was false by definition. His real adversaries were not the secularists but (1) the Jewish religious nationalists who viewed Zionism as the fulfillment of Judaism, and (2) the ultra‐Orthodox Jews who succumbed to the seduction of Zionism, even if only for pragmatic reasons. Teitelbaum would have agreed with Yoder’s use of Jeremiah 29 as the template of Jewish religiosity, albeit not for the same reasons. For Teitelbaum exile is a divine decree not to be undone by any form of activism, and contesting that decree endangers the Jews by severing the covenantal protection awarded to them though Sinai. Exile is not the place for Jews to disseminate their wisdom to the world but rather to create enclaves whereby they can maintain their tradition and wait for redemption (see Magid). Satmar is very much a premillennial Judaism, it seeks to cultivate a remnant of “true Jews” who live by their covenantal responsibilities and will ultimately merit redemption. It also has strong pacifist tendencies, at least in terms of “forcing the end” of exile, a rabbinic prohibition articulated in the Talmud (see Ravitzky, 40-78). While Teitelbaum and Yoder strongly differ on fundamental issues of theology, two important places where they overlap is on the notion of faith in God and in God’s covenant with Israel as the central tenet of Jewish life and on the corrosive nature of the political in the sphere of religion.
Here a brief examination of Schwarzschild is relevant, because it is perhaps the best place to view the overlap between Yoder and Teitelbaum. Schwarzschild was a friend of Yoder and their communication on these matters illuminates much about both Yoder’s and Schwarzschild’s theological positions. Schwarzschild was also one of the few modern Jewish thinkers who creatively used Teitelbaum’s anti‐Zionism in his theological work although he did not fully advocate for Teitelbaum’s uncompromising and strident position. This comes through most clearly in his essay “On the Theology of Jewish Survival” (1990).
In that essay, Schwarzschild makes a distinction between what calls the “ethical covenant” and the “metaphysical covenant.”
The ethical interpretation makes the religious, ethical, and historical honor of Israel the prerequisite of God’s fulfillment of His part of the covenant; i.e. the preservation and advantage of the Jewish people: if they do not do their share He is relieved of His obligation and will let it lapse. The advantage of this view is obviously the responsibility which it places on the Jew and the ethical stimulus it thus constitutes. Its corollary disadvantage is equally obvious: it is entirely too anthropocentric… . The metaphysical view, then, represents the other part of the polarity. It speaks of the “eternal covenant”: it assures mankind that as long as the rainbow will be in the sky so long—which is to say eternally—will humanity persist, and it assures Israel that its survival is coeval with God’s existence. (Schwarzschild, 84, 85)
In some way, the very notion of Jewish nationalism—making the Jewish people, and not God, the center of the covenantal axis—is a “secular” act, because while it may retain allegiance to the “ethical covenant” (the fulfillment of mitzvot) it ignores or marginalizes the “metaphysical covenant” that privileges Jewish survival. The self‐assertion of Jewish “survival” is founded in some way on two opposite poles: the fear of physical annihilation (the Holocaust) and the fear of assimilation (“the vanishing American Jew”). Thus taking one’s survival into one’s own hands is understandable enough, especially given historical exigencies, but Schwarzschild asks us to consider the covenantal price of such a move. Since the ethical and metaphysical dimensions of the covenant exist in tandem and stand in dialectical relation to one another—the tradition affirms both as operative—what happens when one is affirmed and one is marginalized, or even unwittingly denied?
Schwarzschild applies this template to the reception of the Holocaust and to militant Zionism. Why, he asks, do we venerate those who “fought back” (for example, in the Warsaw ghetto uprising) and those who survived, but view those who perished as victims “who went like sheep to the slaughter”?About the victims of the Holocaust, Schwarzschild writes,
To be menschen in the midst of inhumanity, to sanctify the name of God while surrounded by a flood of heathenism, to study, teach, and pray in a world in which only murder, rape, and brutality reigned … who will rise and have the forwardness to claim that this was not, in its way, the greatest, most admirable, the most heroic form of resistance … God was so vicious as to kill us, and He was so vicious as to preserve us; to Him go all blame and all glory. (Schwarzschild, 94)
This mentality where only those who “fought back” are the heroes, Schwarzschild argues, translates quite seamlessly to the militarism of Zionism as an expression of Jewish survivalism. It also, I would add, marginalizes the metaphysical covenant, as well as lends itself to a skewed view of miracles. That God does not destroy the Jewish people is not, for Schwarzschild, a miracle but is endemic to the covenant itself. Miracles are only the ways in which God enacts God’s covenantal promise. To focus primarily on physical Jewish survival as the sine qua non of Jewish life is, for Schwarzschild, to move away from Israel’s covenant with God. Its most overt expression is Meir Kahane’s Never Again! Schwarzschild argues that all those Jews who rejected the covenantal tradition, ethical and metaphysical, Jews for whom miracles were nothing more than superstition, suddenly discovered miracles in the Six‐Day War, while many ultra‐Orthodox Jews for whom miracles are true and palpable—an integral part of the covenant—were not so convinced. Schwarzschild cites his teacher Ernst Akiva Simon, an Orthodox Jew and member of the binationalist Brit Shalom movement, who said “I too would believe that it [the Six‐Day War] was a miracle—if I didn’t believe in God so much” (Schwarzschild, 92).
Schwarzschild summarizes his position as follows:
What we have been saying is that the survival of the Jewish people is guaranteed by God—that we not really concern ourselves with it—that to preoccupy oneself with it is a form of sickness, as health‐faddists are invariably sick people—that to attribute our survival to human instrumentalities … inevitably leads to acts of hubris (ga’avah), which victimize other human beings and result in unending conflict and defeat—and that, on the contrary, the God who has brought us this far will also redeem His other promises to Israel… . In short, the Torah is our business, Israel’s survival is God’s. (Schwarzschild, 96, 97)
Schwarzschild certainly does not adopt Teitelbaum’s political theology. But he is in effect suggesting that Teitelbaum makes an important point: we must consider how much of the covenant is erased through the adaptation of a Zionism which says that the standard of Jewish legitimacy should rest on Jews being fully responsible for their own survival.
I suggest that Jewish theology functions best when Schwarzschild’s ethical and metaphysical covenantal postures act in relation, rather than opposition to, one another. Covenantal theology requires human action and divine promise. When human action functions without, or even against, divine promise—or even when divine promise is realized in human action (if God is understood to demand that we save ourselves)—what too easily results is an ideology of power whereby human responsibility for the “other” is eclipsed by the fetishization of the survival of the self. Yoder’s understanding of the Jesus movement was that by uncoupling religion from the polis, “true” religion (for him, nascent Christianity and early Judaism) could assure that the polis would not succumb to theologizing its own muscularity thus undermining precisely what it has to offer human civilization. Here the American colonial theologian Roger Williams’s point is relevant: the separation of church and state in colonial America was not to save the state from religion but to save religion from the state. Williams, like Teitelbaum (in regards to Israel) was a separatist who believed that the state had no business interfering in matters of religion nor should it take upon itself any religious meaning whatsoever. Yet Williams and Teitelbaum (in regards to the diaspora) are like the Israeli scientist and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994) (in regards to Israel), who also believed the state should be utterly divorced from religion for both practical and ideological reasons. Leibowitz, an Israeli, was an Orthodox Jew as well as a lifelong Zionist but believed that religion had no role whatsoever in the Zionist project. For Leibowitz the justification of Zionism was simply that it enabled Jews not to reside under the auspices of Gentiles. Any religious import was idolatrous. In this sense Leibowitz the Zionist relates to the Jewish state as Teitelbaum the anti‐Zionist relates to America: in a purely utilitarian manner.
Ochs is certainly correct when he argues that “part of the postliberal critique of modern thought is that neither the things of the created world nor the messages of God’s revealed Scripture are adequately ‘captured’, represented, or defined in humanly constructed claims” (Ochs, 159). But this may be precisely Yoder’s point viewed through the lens of Schwarzschild’s ethical and metaphysical covenant. Jeremiah and Ezra live in dialectical tension, as they must, for the covenant to remain intact. Yoder is offering his vision of “finding a story, which is really there, coming all the way down from Abraham” (Yoder, 115). That story is there, although it is not the only one. At the center of Ochs’s critique of Yoder is Yoder’s essentialism. Ochs thinks that Yoder could not accept any Judaism (or Christianity for that matter) that exercised political power, because such a Judaism would not be really Jewish. I am less sure that Yoder’s story is as exclusivist or as essentialist as Ochs thinks. In the final section of this essay I suggest a less essentialist reading of Yoder as a useful tool for contemporary postliberal theology in regards to a new kind of reparative theology.
At the J Street 2014 National Conference in Washington D.C., Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum said that nowadays, if potential congregants come into almost any non‐Orthodox synagogue and say they do not believe in God and do not keep any of the commandments, they would be welcome. But if they say they are not Zionists or do not believe in the state of Israel, they would not be welcome. While debatable, the heuristic point is well taken. This is precisely Schwarzschild’s critique: heroism is defined largely through active resistance, not passive acquiescence. The pacifist is not the hero; at best she is a victim. Religion as a life in search of meaning that houses a covenantal promise for a redemptive future, however defined, is overtaken by political power as the religion of the non‐believer, with the Six‐Day War as its central miracle. The hegemony of Jewish nationalism may be guilty of its own supersessionism and that may be one of its greatest, and most challenging, achievements. How can postliberal reparative theology confront that challenge?
Re‐Reading Yoder against Ochs
Ochs notes throughout his work that postliberalism is the best avenue to promote a theology that considers reparation and the alleviation of suffering as its highest value. If postliberal Judaism really wants to be a reparative theology in the twenty‐first century, and I think it certainly could, it must address the reality in which it lives and also the victims it produces. I fully embrace Ochs’s commitment to postliberal theology as a theology of reparation and I fully accept his idea that the reparation of twentieth‐century thinking should be a post‐Holocaust reparation. That is why the postliberal Christian theologians whom Ochs treats so brilliantly in his work are crucial; it is Christianity, or perhaps a modern form of European Christendom, that needs to be proactive in repairing the breach between itself and the Jews. The theologians Ochs treats in Another Reformation acknowledge this and are committed to that healing. I also understand how, for Ochs, part of the move away from supersessionism is the affirmation of Jewish self‐determination in the form of the Jewish nationalist project.
To extend Ochs’s thinking, I want to suggest that the twenty‐first century presents us with another possible site of reparation—one that, perhaps ironically, presents certain challenges to the reparation of the twentieth century. While Zionism, and the Christian West’s acceptance of it, is part of a larger postliberal project of reparation that is in part about the alleviation of Jewish suffering living under the dominion of others during their long history, Zionism also produces the suffering of another people, the Palestinians, not necessarily by intention but by design. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 when Jews moved from a relatively powerless minority to a powerful majority, and after 1967 when the state of Israel moved from being a democracy of all its citizens (flawed like every other democracy) to being overlords of another population, the partners of reparation may have shifted from Christians and Jews, to Jews and Palestinians (I admit the linkage between Jews and Israelis is a complex one). In an interview in June 1982, Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi famously said, “Everybody is somebody’s Jew,” and his interviewer Filippo Gentiloni completed the thought: “and today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis” (Acocella). The movement of Christianity toward Judaism and the call for a Jewish response so eloquently stated in Dabru Emet and Christianity in Jewish Terms must also consider that Jews may find themselves on the other end of that equation. To deny that possibility indeed essentializes victimhood, which makes the gift of political power not only superfluous but also unjust.
The Holocaust still remains a cloud hovering over the entire discussion. Whether or not we want to suggest a theological connection between the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, it is certainly legitimate to say that politically the Holocaust played a role in making the state a reality. And part of the reparation of the Holocaust, as Ochs notes, is the viability of Jewish sovereignty in the form of a Zionist nation‐state (see Ochs, 162). But it is more complicated than that. As we know, the land was never empty. The challenge of the new nation‐state was the impact the founding of that state had on the people who lived there and the ways in which each side is now implicated in the narrative of the other. On this Edward Said wrote:
Neither Palestinian nor Israeli history at this point is a thing in itself, without the other… . In doing so [seeing them as separate] we will necessarily come up against the basic irreconcilability between the Zionist claim and Palestinian dispossession. The injustice done to the Palestinians is constitutive of these two histories, as is also the crucial effect of Western anti‐Semitism and the Holocaust. (Said 2006, 193)
The Jews now face a challenge, in part not of their own making and in part the result of precisely the reparation of a previous generation, the manifestation of a nation‐state founded on the principle of Jewish (that is, biblical) history, one that, once enacted, has had a negative impact on another population, not only by consequence but also by design. There is the old joke that Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel are like a man jumping from a burning building and landing on someone’s head. This impact of the latter collision is not as severe as the former conflagration (the Holocaust), but the latter collision creates a state of dispossession nonetheless. On this Atalia Omer notes, “The reading of the Tanakh (and the Holocaust), in socializing a particular historical Jewish Israeli consciousness, normalized and vindicated Jewish presence in Palestine. Therefore, it obscured the possibility of recognizing how the narratives of Palestinian displacement and uprootedness might challenge the perceptions of peace and justice as imagined within the Zionist vista” (Omer, 41). Although creating such a possibility “necessitates critiquing and deconstructing the Zionist narrative of Jewish history” (Omer, 117), this need not result in the denial of the right of the state to exist. Boyarin’s reframing of diaspora as a posture that could function as an ethos in a nation‐state and Judith Butler’s notion of diasporic cohabitation as a legitimate, perhaps even preferable, form of Jewishness outside the state—but not by definition against it—are two aspects of “critiquing the Zionist narration of Jewish history.” Both can exist alongside a nation‐state, one as the ethos of the state and one as legitimate Jewishness outside it.
Yoder’s anti‐Constantianism as the basis of his alleged anti‐Zionism may offer yet another alternative by suggesting that when the polis takes possession of religion, even in a secularized form, it will invariably corrupt the polis and that corruption will precisely undermine religion’s genius. This is as true of Judaism as it is of Christianity (or Islam). Ochs may say that because Yoder is an essentialist, his theory of non‐non‐supersessionism cannot play a role in the new reparation paradigm because it unequivocally denies the previous one (Zionism as a reparation of the Holocaust) and because essentialist views cannot easily bear the weight of historical change. I am suggesting that viewing Yoder through Schwarzschild enables us to read Yoder in a more generous way. Perhaps if Zionism would become more openly uncoupled from Judaism, if it would not make its politics the standard of Jewish theology and Jewish identity, it would enable Judaism to remain closer to what Yoder thought it originally was (or at least was in part), and contemporary readers of Yoder on this question may feel less inclined to make his critique as sharply, or in as essentialist a fashion, as he did. If we say that today’s postliberal theology needs to respond to the reparation of another state of inequality, ironically born in part from a previous state of inequality, Yoder, along with Boyarin and Butler, may be useful tools for contemporary Jewish postliberal theological thinking. His critique of Constantinianism, whether in Christianity (Christendom) or in Judaism (Zionism), needs to be heard in a world where Constantine and Bar Kokhba’s ghosts seem to be marching in step, perhaps preventing postliberal theology from more fully embracing positions necessary to promote healing in the twenty‐first century.