It is easy to see how this error—which, in fairness, the Post corrected two days later—could have been made by a reporter (Dana Milbank) who presumably knows more about American politics than American religion. Prager's political views certainly agree with those of, say, Gary Bauer, far more than they don't. If Prager's views are akin to a conservative Christian's, why not assume that Prager is a conservative Christian? After all, "Dennis" isn't exactly a Jewish name, and though "Prager" is, it is less obviously so than others like Goldberg (or Schwartz).
In any event, Milbank's blooper confirms a point made by the sociologist James Davison Hunter. American religious tolerance is now so extensive that "the practical effects of the birth of Christianity…at least in the U.S. context, [have] become both politically and culturally defunct." The differences between Jews and Christians simply don't matter very much to Americans anymore.
Nevertheless, theologically, the differences between Judaism and Christianity continue to be immense. David Klinghoffer's valuable book is intended to emphasize this simple but all-important point: Jews denied and deny that Jesus was the messiah. Why the Jews Rejected Jesus explains that denial.
He begins with allusions to conversations with conservative Christians, who are puzzled that Klinghoffer—himself a political conservative (formerly a critic for the Washington Times and a senior editor at National Review, currently a columnist for the Jewish Forward)—fails to "see the need for Christ in [his] life." In response to interlocutors like these, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus aims to tell, "for the first time from a Jewish perspective, the story of the two-thousand-year Jewish-Christian debate about Jesus." He tells the story chronologically, working his way from the time of Jesus's life, through late antiquity and the Middle Ages, into modern times.
As Klinghoffer makes clear, notwithstanding the controversy evoked by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the Jewish-Christian debate over Jesus does not, or at least should not, focus on the responsibility for Jesus' death. It is not anti-Semitic to say that some of Jesus's Jewish contemporaries were in part responsible for his death. He notes that canonical Jewish sources like the Talmud and Maimonides openly and unapologetically declare that Jewish leaders were complicit in Jesus's death (echoed, as he does not note, by a more recent noncanonical source—the comedian Lenny Bruce). According to the Talmud, Jesus was thought to have "led astray [the people] Israel."
The central question is not who killed Jesus, but whether Jesus was the messiah. Historically, the Jewish response has been that Jesus cannot have been the messiah, since the messiah was supposed to regather Jewish exiles in Judea, overthrow the Roman oppressors, and establish a just kingdom on earth. Jesus did none of these things, so that in the estimation of a 12th-century Jewish sage, Jesus "accomplished nothing which can actually be seen."
Related to the question of whether Jesus was the messiah (a claim that Jesus made ambiguously) is the question of how belief in Jesus should affect one's attitude towards the commandments that Jews are obliged to fulfill. Here Klinghoffer's focus shifts from Jesus to Paul—making it clear that his book's title is actually misleading.
It is not so much the rejection of Jesus, writes Klinghoffer, as "the rejection of Paul, or rather of Paul's conception of Jesus Christ, [that] was the very turning point of Western history." Paul argued that non-Jews who accepted Jesus as their savior were freed from observing the burdensome commandments imposed on Jews, e.g., circumcision, not working on the Sabbath, dietary restrictions, and so on. In this way, belief in Jesus became incompatible with observing Jewish law, insofar as salvation now could not be obtained through keeping the commandments but only through faith in Jesus. As Paul stated in Galatians (2:21), "If righteousness could come through the law, Christ died in vain." To accept Jesus was to concede that Jewish law was obsolete, that it had been countermanded by a new covenant with God. Believing Jews, who thought that theirs was an eternal law, were unwilling to do this.
It is precisely the abandonment of Jewish law, however, that made possible Christianity's amazing success in converting pagans. In the words of Edward Gibbon, "Christianity offered itself to the world, armed with the strength of the Mosaic law, and delivered from the weight of its fetters." Christianity (like Judaism) offered "an exclusive zeal for the truth of religion, and the unity of God," but unlike Judaism, Christianity did not demand that its adherents take upon themselves a "variety of trivial though burdensome observances" that were "so many objects of disgust and aversion for…other nations."
In this context Klinghoffer argues for the world-historical significance of the Jewish rejection of Jesus and Paul. For had the Jews accepted Jesus, the Jesus movement would have remained a small Jewish sect, because belief in Jesus would have been added onto continued observance of the Jewish law, instead of justifying the abrogation of that law.
Because the commandments can be conceived as burdens, Judaism was "never designed to be a mass religion." A "Jewish" Christianity, a Christianity mandating continued observance of the commandments, "would have stood as much chance of taking hold of huge numbers of people as a church nowadays that asks all members to earn a master's degree in theology."
Had the Jews embraced Jesus, Klinghoffer plausibly argues, pagans would not have done so. Thus the creation of a Christianized Europe paradoxically depended on the Jewish rejection of Jesus. Klinghoffer declares: "If you value the great achievements of Western civilization and of American society [an outgrowth of Christianized Europe], thank the Jews for their decision to cleave to their ancestral religion instead of embracing the rival teachings of Jesus and his followers." And, one might add, thank Jesus and Paul for promulgating a monotheistic religion that civilized the West. Klinghoffer evidently rejects the Jewish sage's view that Jesus "accomplished nothing which can actually be seen."
This conclusion reminds one of Hegel's discussion of the "cunning of reason," its ability to use unlikely means to achieve world-historical ends—and perhaps also of Groucho Marx's insistence that he would join no club that was willing to admit him as a member.
Because American Judaism and Christianity are now so extraordinarily tolerant of one another, Americans tend to think in terms of a Judeo-Christian tradition that has historically united these two great monotheistic religions. But Klinghoffer's book reminds us that such a notion is radically ahistorical. For the most part, serious Jews have been dismissive of Christianity, and vice versa. Maimonides, for one, held that when the true messiah finally came, Christians would realize that their religion consisted of "naught but lies."
As the Jewish scholar Arthur Cohen noted, in the past "Jews [have] regarded Christians as at best second-best and at worst as execrable idolaters, and Christians [have] regarded Jews as at best worthy of conversion and at worst as deicides and antichrists." If, as in George Bernard Shaw's formulation, England and America are two countries divided by a common language, then Judaism and Christianity are two religions divided by a common God. Jews believe that they must keep the commandments so that the messiah will come; in contrast, Christians believe that the commandments should not be kept, because the messiah has come.
The Jewish and Christian approaches to messianism diverge in ways that transcend the historical disagreement over who and what Jesus was. Consider, for example, the "anthropologies" of the two faiths. In a fascinating recent essay, Meir Soloveichik, a young American Orthodox rabbi, points out that it is no accident that the Jewish conception of the messiah stresses his Davidic ancestry, which means that the messiah descends, like King David, from forebears who were incestuous idolaters. Nor is it an accident that the Christian conception of the messiah stresses that Jesus was born to a virgin mother, who was herself immaculately conceived, and an Almighty father.
Christians believe in a pure messiah who redeems an impure world that cannot redeem itself; Jews believe in a messiah who can overcome his own family's history of sinfulness, who can inspire men to earn their own redemption. For Jews, belief in the messiah asserts the human capacity to become worthy of Him by rising above sin; for Christians, belief in the messiah asserts the human incapacity to become worthy of Him, the human need for the messiah to take our sins upon himself. For Paul, salvation depends not on "human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy" (Romans 9:16); for Paul's Jewish opponents, God shows his mercy by giving humans the will to exert and thereby save themselves.
Yet despite these differences, it remains the case that, at least in America, Judaism and Christianity are now on unprecedentedly amicable terms. To be sure, this is in part tactical. The great Western monotheistic religions share common enemies: Communism in the past, and secularism and Islamism in the present. Christian horror at the Nazi murder of millions of Jews (to which the tradition of Christian anti-Semitism contributed, if only indirectly) has also spurred efforts to focus on the commonalities between the two religions.
But the Judeo-Christian rapprochement is, at bottom, theological. Whatever their disagreements, the two religions share their central belief: a single, omnipotent, and just God who created the universe and assigned moral duties to man.
From a Jewish perspective, Christianity (and Islam) can be said to serve God's purposes by making His name known throughout the world. (It is estimated that there are 2.1 billion Christians in the world, 1.3 billion Muslims—and 14 million Jews.) In the words of the prolific Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, "Christianity really did bring the written Torah to the whole world. Christianity really did form the ideal of an entire civilization framed around the principles of the Torah, for instance, the Ten Commandments."
Klinghoffer's book demonstrates that this view is faithful to—not a departure from—at least some aspects of Jewish tradition. The great medieval philosopher and poet Judah Halevi compared Judaism to a "seed" that produced "the tree [Christianity and Islam] bearing fruit resembling that from which it had been produced." The 19th-century German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (the founder of modern Orthodox Judaism) spoke of Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism that "had to become estranged from it in great measure, in order to bring the world—sunk in idol worship, violence, immorality and the degradation of man—at least the tiding of the One Alone, of the brotherhood of all men and of man's superiority over the beast."
Judaism and Christianity will always disagree, but can nevertheless find considerable common ground. As Leo Strauss observed in 1963, "the Jew may recognize that the Christian error is a blessing, a divine blessing, and the Christian may recognize that the Jewish error is a blessing, a divine blessing. Beyond this they cannot go without ceasing to be Jew or Christian." These words of Strauss epitomize the message of David Klinghoffer's honest, courageous, and informative book.