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What Can Jews Learn From Christian Missionaries?

Twenty years after a major statement by Jews reaching out to Christians, it’s time to ask again what we have to teach each other

Shaul Magid
July 06, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
“I was baptized but not converted”
—Henrich Heine

September will mark the 20th anniversary of Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity, a controversial document signed by over 200 rabbis and Jewish scholars. Dabru Emet, which appeared in The New York Times on Sept. 10, 2000, was written as a response to various changes over the previous decades in Church doctrine regarding the Jews. In the opening statement it said, “We believe these changes [in Church attitudes toward the Jews] merit a thoughtful Jewish response. Speaking only for ourselves—an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars—we believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity.”

Those who wrote and signed Dabru Emet were optimistically committed to the idea that Judaism and Christianity shared enough theologically that their differences could be discussed through their commonalities. Soon afterward, a scholarly volume, Christianity in Jewish Terms, appeared, edited by some of the authors of Dabru Emet, that delved more deeply into the complex attitudes of Jews toward Christianity from late antiquity to the present.

Critical responses to Dabru Emet quickly showed up, perhaps the most challenging by Harvard professor Jon Levenson. In an essay, “How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” published in Commentary in December 2001, Levenson argued that the authors of Dabru Emet gave up too much. In their desire to fortify constructive Jewish-Christian dialogue, they too easily erased categorical distinctions between the two religions that must be maintained for Judaism to retain its integrity—and its difference—from the dominant religion with which it engages. For Levenson, statements in Dabru Emet like “Jews and Christians worship the same God,” or share the same scripture, went too far, threatening to undermine Judaism’s unique iteration of monotheism and blurring distinctions that are necessary to understand both religions responsibly.

Levenson teaches Hebrew Bible in a divinity school that in part trains Christian clergy, so it’s not that he is opposed to interfaith dialogue. Rather, what bothered him were Dabru Emet’s assertions (see Editor’s Note, below) that Jews and Christians worship the same God, and share scripture without making any distinctions between the Old and New Testament.

It is important to consider that Dabru Emet came at a time, 20 years ago, when the missionary threat posed to American Jews had waned considerably. By the 21st century, American Jews feel neither compelled nor coerced to convert to Christianity. In fact, with evangelical Christianity’s newfound love for Israel, American Jews are often looked upon quite favorably by many Christians who see them as an integral part of their dispensationalist theology. In this light, Dabru Emet’s overt gesture to look for Jewish-Christian overlap as opposed to difference may be in part because the threat Jews experienced previously by missionaries has yielded a much friendlier acceptance of Jews qua Jews in America. That is one bit of important context.

But to properly engage this debate on either side, one needs more historical context still, and substantially more than the document, or Levenson, gave. In particular, neither addressed the way Christian missionaries, Jewish apostates, and Jewish defenders of tradition against missionaries, especially in 19th-century Europe, contributed to the complex conversation about Judaism and Christianity, what they share, and where they differ. While scholarly work has already been done on this subject—in particular the work of Shmuel Feiner, Israel Bartal, Christopher Clark, Michael Stanislawski, Olga Litwak, and Eliyahu Stern—two new books invite us to delve even more deeply into the thick history of this Jewish/Christian interplay.

The great scholar David Ruderman’s new book, Missionaries, Converts and Rabbis (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020) on the life and work of Christian missionary Alexander McCaul and his reception, opens new vistas that can help us further explore the complexity of Judaism, Christianity, and Jewish Christianity, and how they each made their way further into modernity. And I would note my recent book on Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Kol Kore, a Hebrew commentary to Mark and Matthew, contributes to this scholarly engagement, too, excavating theological “borderlands” where Judaism and Christianity lived and functioned in very close proximity, a space that exists between each religion and between each religious community.

By borderlands I mean a space that is neither Jewish nor Christian and also Jewish and Christian, a place where identities merge and doctrines are debated outside the opaque borders that separate the two religions. The debates and exchanges in these borderlands gives us a new way to examine the ecumenicism Dabru Emet promotes and its critics deride. Below I engage Ruderman’s recent book with some other scholarship, offering suggestions as to how Christian missionary activity in 19th-century Europe can deepen our understanding of the issues at play in this ongoing dialogue.

Most Jews today, even rabbis and scholars, have never heard of Alexander McCaul, or Jewish apostates such as Stanislaus Hoga, Moshe Margoliouth, Immanuel Frommann, Nehemia Solomon, or Augustus Neander. Neander, a member of the Mendelssohn family, rose to become one of the great Church historians of his generation, Solomon published an early 19th-century Yiddish translation of the New Testament, and Frommann published a Hebrew kabbalistic commentary to the Gospel of Luke. That is no surprise. If we look at studies of Jews in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, we would think the major debates related to emancipation, Reform and Orthodoxy, Hasidism and Mithnagdism, Wissenschaft des Judentums (the scientific study of Judaism), residual effects of Sabbateanism and later Frankism, and later Zionism and its discontents. This is all true, yet there was another significant phenomenon less known: the attempt to convert Jews to Christianity and the many Jewish defenses against missionary activity.

In his 2015 history of Jewish conversion in modern Europe, Leaving the Fold: Conversion and Radical Assimilation in Modern Jewish History, historian Todd Endelman argues that one can divide conversion into two major categories: conversion of convenience and conversion of conviction. The former was dominant; most Jews who converted did so to better their lives. A much smaller group, converts of conviction, were Jews who became Christians because they truly believed in the message of the Gospel. In a small, evocative book, Converts of Conviction (2017), Ruderman challenges the thesis that converts of conviction were a marginal and largely inconsequential phenomenon. He does so not by disputing Endelman’s claim that the vast majority of converts were converts of convenience, but by examining some important Jewish converts to Christianity who contributed not only to Christianity but also to Judaism, precisely because they viewed their conversion not repudiating Judaism, but fulfilling it.

While the learned missionaries like McCaul and the Jewish responses seem no longer relevant (an issue Ruderman addresses briefly at the end of his book), they comprised a theological borderland that can teach us a great deal about the ways in which Judaism and Christianity can’t seem to unequivocally separate from one another, a tension that is expressed much later in Dabru Emet in a different time. In the 18th and 19th centuries what we today call Jewish-Christian dialogue often took place precisely in these theological borderlands.

Christian missionaries with deep Judaic knowledge such as English churchman John Oxlee (1779-1854) regularly conversed with Jewish scholars about theological matters. Lest one think this occurred only with Enlightenment-influenced, modernizing Jews, major rabbinic figures such as Jacob Emden (1697-1776) and Menachem Mendel of Shlov (d. 1827, from the circle of the Vilna Gaon) regularly engaged Christians on theological matters. And Jewish apostate Isaac Edward (Yitzhak) Salkinson (1820-1883) used to have Friday night (Shabbat) meals with candles and Kiddush where he would expound the wonders of Jesus. Medieval polemical literature espousing incontrovertible distinctions between Judaism and Christianity was simply not at play in these borderlands where Jews, Christians, and Jewish Christians hashed out their differences and overlaps.

Alexander McCaul (1799-1863) is at the center of Ruderman’s study, and rightfully so. An Irishman, McCaul is best known for his leading role in The London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews. An eclectic and colorful figure, McCaul lived in Warsaw from 1821-1830 where he studied Hebrew and rabbinic literature. Living amongst Warsaw’s large Jewish community, McCaul became proficient in Hebrew and Yiddish, Talmud and Midrash, and developed a deep respect and admiration for Jews. For example, during the 1840 blood libel case in Damascus, McCaul wrote a letter defending the Jews and organized signatures from his community of Jewish apostates who argued that Jews do not use Christian blood for any purpose whatsoever. McCaul was offered and declined a position of bishop in Jerusalem because he felt the position should be occupied by a Jewish and not a gentile Christian. He later became a professor of Hebrew and rabbinic studies at Kings College, in London.

McCaul’s major work, The Old Paths; Or, The Talmud tested by Scripture: being a Comparison of the Principles and Doctrines of Modern Judaism, with the Religion of Moses (1837), is a learned tome arguing that the Talmud distorted the true Judaic/biblical message. The Old Paths was translated into Hebrew, German, French, Polish, and Italian and was one of the most popular volumes of its kind in the nineteenth century. Although there were previous Christian attacks on the Talmud, for example, Johann Andreas Eisenmenger’s (1654-1704) Entdecktes Judenthum (Judaism Unmasked, 1700)—sourcebooks for modern Christian antisemitism—McCaul’s Old Paths was different in that he exhibited a deep appreciation for Judaism, even as it attacked the Talmud. Ruderman writes, “In The Old Paths, McCaul was especially clever in making his case that Jews must abandon the rabbis and their rulings and adopt a purified version of biblical Judaism shaped in the image of evangelical Christianity.”

McCaul also lived during the robust debates about biblical criticism among both Jews and Christians and he was stanchly opposed to it, believing biblical criticism undermined the immaculate nature of the Hebrew Bible. He was thus very controversial among his Christian colleagues. As he was missionizing the Jews, McCaul was accused by his Christian critics that in preserving the authority of the Hebrew Bible by rejecting its late authorship, McCaul was essentially defending the Jews, that he was “A Jew in Christian garb.” From the other side, in his claim about the sanctity of the Talmud, as part of his refutation of it, he was accused of offering a kind of Orthodox rendering of the Talmud’s authority. His Jewish Enlightenment critics accused him of a kind of Orthodox Jewish error. His critics claimed that McCaul’s argument that the Talmud was “sacred” distorts Judaism, since the Talmud is not as authoritative as McCaul claims, and thus McCaul’s criticisms of the Talmud did not undermine Judaism at all.

Two of McCaul’s most important disciples were Jewish apostates Stanislaus Hoga (1791-1860) and Moshe Margoliouth (1818-1881). Originally from Warsaw, Hoga, whose father was a Hasid of the seer of Lublin, translated The Old Paths into Hebrew as Netivot Shalom which is how it was read by most Jews. Hoga later left the London Society and wrote a scathing critique of his former teacher. There is considerable debate as to whether he eventually returned to Judaism in his old age. As Ruderman puts it, “His unique brand of Jewish Christianity was recognized and even appreciated by some, and he apparently found a way to bring together in his own mind and heart his Jewish and Christian selves.”

Moshe Margoliouth was a respected clergyman of the Church of England and also espoused a kind of Jewish Christianity. Originally from Suwalki, Poland, Margoliouth was even more engaged with Jews and Jewish life than Hoga. Margoliouth was a devout Christian who also continued to identify openly as both a Jew and a Christian. Unlike Hoga, he retained strong ties to his family, often returning to Poland to visit them. Margoliouth made a decidedly modern move by distinguishing Judaism from Jews: The former was in error, but the latter were precious, pious, and upright. Ruderman puts it this way: “For Margoliouth, the distinction was clear: Judaism is about religious belief and practice, but Jewishness entails literary and scientific accomplishment. Here he unambiguously offered a secular definition of Jewish identity, one based on ethnicity and culture.” By separating religion from culture, Margoliouth seemingly has found the strategy to declare his own allegiance to Jews in his new role as a minister of the English church. A few decades later, Zionism would utilize a similar distinction between Judaism and Jewishness.

For Margoliouth and also for Hoga, the notion of Jewish Christianity was natural. One could easily, and smoothly, adhere to a form of Jewish faith while believing in Jesus. This appears to be the message they had for their fellow Jews. This notion would be advocated over a century later by Oswald Rufeisen (1922-1998), known as “Brother Daniel,” a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism during World War II, became a monk and then requested to immigrate to Israel as a Jew under the Law of Return in 1959. Denied entry, he appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court and in 1962 his case became the landmark decision of “Who is a Jew?” in Israel.

As far as I know, Rufeisen never heard of either Hoga or Margoliouth. But Margoliouth’s division of Judaism and Jew enabled Rufeisen to make the claim that he was both a Jew and a Christion, and he forced the Israeli court to decide whether that distinction, one that in some way was made by Zionism itself (i.e., one can be a Jew without Judaism) held in regard to citizenship. It decided that it did not, but the dissenting opinion, by Justice Haim Cohen, argued precisely on this point, that in fact one’s Jewishness had nothing really to do with one’s religion. If a Jew can be a Jew without Judaism, why can’t a Jew be a Jew while professing another religion? Israel’s Rabbanut disagreed with the court’s ruling, arguing from a talmudic perspective that a Jew remains a Jew even if he is an apostate.

Before discussing Judaism’s defenders against McCaul’s program, it is important to note a significant attitude toward missionary activity in the London Society: rejection of the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism in favor of a return to just Bible. For many previous anti-Semitic missionaries of that period, whose work was often based on a critique of the Talmud, Jews, and Judaism, were rejected by God, and the only path to salvation was under the umbrella of Christ. McCaul and his coterie argued that by accepting the Talmud as a distortion of Judaism, one can return to Judaism’s biblical roots, and one can again become a full Jew. Accepting Jesus as savior was certainly part of that, but that too is a part of Judaism itself and not something external to it. In advocating Christianity, McCaul wanted to bring Judaism as he understood it, back to the Jews, what has been called elsewhere, Jewish Christianity. As we will presently see, some of McCaul’s Jewish critics contest his repudiation of the Talmud but similarly view a symbiosis between Judaism and Christianity on different terms.

The popularity of McCaul’s The Old Paths in Eastern Europe came largely through Czar Alexander I, who invited the London Society to Russia to convert the Jews. Alexander I’s intentions were not necessarily anti-Semitic—he was viewed positively by many rabbinic figures—but rather the product of his own spiritual inclination and his desire to Russify the Jews. Israel Bartal writes, “[Alexander I] believed with a full heart that he could enable the Jews to see the true tradition of the TANAKH and remove the barrier placed before them by the Talmud that prevented their belief in Jesus. And they would truly become Hebrew Christians. At this time the Russian czar opened the gates of the empire to Christians from the west to initiate an international campaign to rectify the citizenship statutes of the Jews of Europe.”

Even though McCaul’s project did not yield many converts, Jewish critiques of The Old Paths quickly emerged. There were two types of Jewish critiques of McCaul that Ruderman deals with: the first by reformers such as Isaac Baer Levinsohn (1788-1860) and Joseph Fuenn (1819-1891), the second by the traditionalist Rafael ben Elijah Kassin of Aleppo and Baghdad (1781-1871). All of them focused on McCaul’s critique of the Talmud, offering defenses of the Talmud as the authentic living document of the Jews. Levinsohn and Fuenn do so as critics of traditional, or Orthodox, understandings of the Talmud. Levinsohn claimed that McCaul’s view of the Talmud was a misunderstanding of the Oral Law as a developing system of adjudication. McCaul’s problem was that he felt that for Jews the Talmud had a status equal to scripture.

Eliyahu Stern has argued that for Levinsohn, McCaul’s error was in part that he viewed the Talmud as spiritually Protestant, rather than viewing it as a form of tradition in Catholicism, something that is malleable and can be changed, a living breathing expression of Jewish ideas that is in constant motion. Fuenn similarly argued that, as opposed to McCaul’s view that the Talmud is a static authoritative document, it is constantly changing. As both Ruderman and Stern argue, Fuenn (whose critique of McCaul was never published) uses a maskilic critique of the Talmud to offer a defense of it against McCaul. Fuenn ends up turning McCaul on his head, to say that what Judaism and Christianity share is a common ethos expressed in the rabbinic corpus. As Stern puts it, “Fuenn puts forward a counter-history of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, in which the origins of the two religions began with a shared rabbinic background.” Christianity separates from Judaism when Paul frees the gentiles from following the law.

Kassin offered a more Orthodox view of the Talmud but surprisingly asserts, in Ruderman’s words, that “despite the ultimate validity of rabbinic Judaism for Jews, the Christians also have a self-validating faith based on a tradition as authentic to them as the one embraced by the Jews.” The zero-sum game of Christianity being idolatry or, at least, a “false religion” so common in the Middle Ages, seemed to dissipate, even among some Mizrahi Orthodox figures such as Kassin. Another Orthodox figure writing at this time, Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik, writes in his Kol Kore, a Hebrew commentary to Mark and Matthew, that there are essentially no theological differences between Judaism and Christianity. He does this by offering a rabbinic commentary to the Gospel, citing talmudic and Maimonidean sources to read the New Testament through a rabbinic lens.

What does this brief foray into the theological borderlands of the 19th-century Jewish-Christian space have to do with Dabru Emet and its detractors? First, it shows us that the space Dabru Emet wants to occupy in 21st-century America—this interfaith engagement on theological terms—is not new and not so radical. The McCauleans and their Jewish critics shared common ground in their understanding of the commonalities between Judaism and Christianity. While Hoga, Margoliouth and later Rufeisen may have held the viability of a real Jewish Christianity, Levinsohn, Fuenn, and even perhaps Kassin, each in their own way, deconstruct the categorical differences between them by suggesting common origins, even as they maintain significant differences. Levinsohn and Fuenn claimed that an enlightened view of Judaism will free Jews and Christians from the false belief in the incompatibility of both religions. And McCaul’s missionary program was not about finally erasing the “despised Jews” and their Judaism, but offered them a way back to a pre-talmudic Judaism.

In his afterword, Ruderman laments that the demise of McCaul’s program and the whole enterprise is not due to its failure but rather that Jews today no longer have enough literacy in their own tradition, nor seem to care to attain it, for McCaul’s project to even threaten them. Put otherwise, many Jews today don’t take Judaism as seriously as McCaul did. This is because Margoliouth was right; Judaism is really not necessary for Jewishness. To some degree, his distinction between Jew and Judaism, although he was not the first to make it, made Judaism if not superfluous, then at least dispensable in secular America.

Dabru Emet was written at a time when the issue of conversion no longer resonated with either Christians or Jews. In pluralistic America, Jews are free to be Jews without constraints. In light of that stable identity, Dabru Emet reaches out to Christians by making what some call compromises and other call concessions. But upon closer examination, these compromises/concessions were made long ago, either by Jewish apostates who wanted to missionize Jews while retaining a deep respect for them, or by critics of those missionaries who, in their defense of Judaism, show an openness to what Jews and Christian shared rather than focus on their categorical differences.

David Ruderman’s Missionaries, Converts, and Rabbis is of great value in understanding an often glossed-over aspect of Jewish modernity. It is also indispensable for better understanding what is at stake as Jews and Christians continue to navigate what separates them and what unites them. Ruderman shows us the openness and seriousness of some of the missionaries and their Jewish detractors at a time when conversion was indeed very much on the table. Twenty years ago, Dabru Emet offered a new template at a time when Jews were not being threatened by conversion and American Jewry’s bigger problem may be its a lack of Judaic knowledge sufficient to even engage with the likes of McCaul. Many suggested Dabru Emet, even given this new social context, went too far. Twenty years later, I think Dabru Emet merits reconsideration.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misrepresented Levenson’s positions on interfaith dialogue. The relevant text has been updated.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.