Blink of an Eye

Before I was fully awake this morning — that is, after Morning Prayer and one cup of coffee — I discovered that David had blogged back at me about my blogback of him blogging back at me about Rowan Williams. (I typed “Roman” Williams, just now; I don’t think that Means Something, though.)

David’s rebuttal hits several points. First, he maintains, the “people-hood” of Israel derives from fictive consanguinity (when I say “fictive,” I don’t mean “fictitious,” but “setting aside for a moment questions of DNA and history, narrated into reality”), not “being called into existence by Scripture,” as the Archbishop of Canterbury suggests. I readily grant most of that premise; the constitution of Israel as a people is prior to its reception of the Torah chronologically, and probably logically also — to an extent. If I understand correctly (and my understanding of Judaism has more to do with academic reading and growing up a goy in a Jewish neighborhood than actual real live knowledge), there’s at least some sense in which descent from this people is correlated to receiving the Torah. By that I don’t mean that if you don’t keep the Torah you aren’t Jewish, but that as a collective, the people of Israel practice Torah-observance as an expression of their peoplehood. It’s not, as David takes Williams to mean, a matter of believing and adhering to a membership list, but would Israel (the people, not the state) be recognizably “:Israel” if no one bothered with the Torah any more? I’d be surprised if one couldn’t find a fair number of Jewish intellectuals who maintained that Torah-onservance was a cardinal expression of Judaic identity. But I’m probably missing something here, in my turn.

By the way, one way of construing the discussion that puts David quite in the right is to compared the Judaic recognition of “righteous Gentiles” with Karl Rahner’s doctrine (to which a number of Christians hold, explicitly or implicitly) that admirable people who have not assented to the Gospel count as “anonymous Christians.” While I disagree with Rahner’s position, I see that it makes a certain kind of Christian sense that would not work relative to Judaism. Rahner’s position extends Christianity to envelope all righteous people; the recognition of righteous Gentiles acknowledges that even though these agents are not in any way Jewish, they’ve attained noteworthy rectitude. If that’s David’s drift, then I agree.

Then David suggests, “Akma’s interpretation makes Williams’ lecture right for Jews but at the expense of obscuring an important difference between the two religions…a difference that comes down to the difference between being a people and being a community.” Again, I see his point — up to an extent. Part of what we’re doing, I think is pushing, pulling, tugging, and having a coffee break to talk over just where to draw the distinction he’s talking about.

But so that no one can accuse me of being conciliatory, I have to ask David for a shade more clarity on his observation that “all too often, in my experience and opinion, Christians assume too much continuity with Judaism.” Here are the ways I agree: (a) as is so often the case with dominant cultures, Christians tend to assume that everyone is really just like us down deep; (b) Christians show an unnerving proclivity to lay claim to what is characteristically Jewish, whether as casual tourists racking up “broad-minded” chips to lay to their credit later (“Hey, some of my best friends. . .”); (c) in a more specific extension of (a) above, Christians tend to regard Judaic differences from Christianity as being divergent (or “malformed”) versions of what Christianity already is — rather than allowing that Judaism might be, like, you know, different (and Christianity might not have the prerogative to define itself as a universal norm of religious identity and practice). I cringe when Christians play at simulated Judaism. But I too insist on “continuity with Judaism” — in the sense that Christians can’t possibly understand who they are in a more than casual sense unless they’ve subjected their imagination to thinking about the Gospel in a world where there are no “Christians,” but only various sorts of Jews (and those Gentiles over there). Christianity becomes different from its origins, and Judaism has become different from what Judaism would have been like in the days the Temple was standing, and they’ve become very, very different from one another, not least because of all the blood on Christian hands. But I’ll insist, firmly but (I hope) humbly, that a Christianity without some mode of continuity to Judaism is a grave spiritual mistake.

And about Rowan Williams — I think that he’s one of the smartest Christians on earth, very concerned about an appropriate relationship among Jews and Gentiles (that’s one reason he’s explicitly attentive to the writings of Peter Ochs); I’m willing to trust that he’s very cautious about supersessionism, colonial Christianity, or disrespect to Jews.

David responded:

Thank you, Akma, as always for the sympathy of your intelligence and learning.

I’m not sure what to make of the “fictive.” I think I’m saying exactly the opposite of your paraphrase. I’m saying that the Jewish conception of our peoplehood (and once again let me note that I am a non-observant Jew who knows way too little about his religion) seems to me to be all about “questions of DNA and history.” We are a people by descent (= DNA) and because of a particular act in history (= Revelation at Sinai). Those two things make me a Jew, even though I’m non-observant. (I am, of course, not a good Jew or a good example of a Jew. My wife, who’s Orthodox, would be the one you’re looking for in that case.)

You’re right to ask for more clarity about my “continuity” remark, which you quite reasonably took not as I meant it. Bad writing on my part. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking of Christians who think of Judaism as being “malformed” Christianity. And I certainly didn’t mean to dismiss Christianity’s historical roots in Judaism. (Yikes. One little phrase can go wrong in so many, many ways!) Rather, by “continuity” I actually meant “sameness.” The differences between the two religions strike me as being quite profound. The two religions are less alike than many Christians think. (Not you, Akma…and my comments were not aimed at Dr. Williams, either.) I am hypersensitive to this because of experiences in well-meaning mixed communities where the Christians have no idea that, for example, when it comes to prayer in school, the Jewish idea of prayer — why, when, where, what for — is so very different from theirs. Likewise for what we think of, say, revelation, scriptural interpretation (where we started!), “sin,” law, devotion, faith, the sabbath, sex, and the ritual importance of Chinese food. In many of these instances, the fact that Christians and Jews use the same vocabulary gets in the way of understanding the differences.

So, I want to put in a word for not understanding each other two easily…and thus for not assuming that our two religions are just a hyphen apart.

[Thank you, David, for your patient insight and wisdom.

I think that, relative to DNA, you and I have come to a place we actually disagree, though I would hasten to concede the precendence to you. It was my (mis-?)understanding that a Gentile might possibly convert to Judaism — thus rendering the genetic element of Judaic identity moot. Was Sammy Davis Jr. not (really) a Jew?

This is why I characterized the familial-historic aspect of Judaic identity as “fictive”; it was my (mis-)understanding that actual DNA-determined descent was less pertinent than the ascribed ancestry that issued in John the Baptist’s assertion that “G-d can raise up from these stones children of Abraham.” I would suppose that if one could mount a rigorous historical argument that no divine revelation took place on Sinai, or that no refugees crossed the Red Sea (or whatever body of water), or no divine covenant made with Abram of Ur, that it would still make sense to talk about Jews as “a people.” If someone brandishing a genetic analysis of Joseph Lieberman demonstrated that his DNA did not correspond with — what? what standard could make sense as a genetic criterion of Judaic identity? — a posited reference set of Judaic genes, would he be “no longer a Jew, never was a Jew”? That sounds perplexing to me.

With regard to the “continuity” point, I think we’re reading from the same harmoniously similar pages. Strike the hyphen! ]

Dr. Phil Edwards joins in:

I’m puzzled by ‘out of nothing’, particularly given Williams’ emphasis on the continuity between the two traditions. I don’t think David W’s reading is correct, as I’ve written in comments at , but the stress on convocation o.o.n. does seem to support it.

Incidentally, your formulation here

I affirm his suggestion that we “imagine that historically remote audience as not only continuous with us but in some sense one with us,” and his proposal that we ask “What does this text suggest or imply about the changes which reading it or hearing it might bring about?” Those seem like plausible, theologically sound hermeneutical gestures (though they’re already particular to the church, not disinterested principles of all interpretive activity).

is too limited; it immediately struck me that this approach would be valuable in political activity. More here:


Phil Edwards

[Thank you, Phil. I added another comment in David’s thread, and am intrigued by your comments (Raymond Williams FTW!, as we say in gamer discourse).

I don’t stake out a claim on non-theological political activity — in the secular political domain, I can’t draw on my most important sources, nor advance the rationales that seem uniquely important. At the same time, it just looks like plain good behavior to me. ]

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