Common Misconceptions

Christians are not idolators--nor are they inherently anti-Semitic.

In two previous essays, the author described common Jewish misconceptions about Christianity and explained the historical and cultural context that gave rise to Christianity. In the following article, Levine offers her opinions concerning some of the most controversial Jewish beliefs about Christianity. These essays first appeared in Moment magazine, and were also published in Best Spiritual Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Christians are not idolators. Statues and icons are like prayer tools: They are the means to the end, which is the worship of God. We may compare this to the kissing of a Torah scroll during a Jewish worship service; the scroll is not divine, but it is honored, and even “dressed” in such a way that an outsider might see it as an idol.

Body & Blood

Speaking of errors outsiders sometimes make, consider the matter of what Christians call either the “Eucharist” (Greek for “thanksgiving”) or “communion” or “the Lord’s Supper.” Ask Christians if they believe they are eating the body and blood of Jesus when they take communion. Iron­ically, just as Christians from the Middle Ages until the early 20th century accused Jews of using the blood of Christian children to bake matzah (a charge made by the notorious Nazi anti-Semite Julius Streicher and recently promulgated by some within the Islamic world), so in the early years of the church, Christians were accused by pagans of using blood in their worship services. Christians did not use blood, but they did use the language of blood.

While the idea of consuming blood is considered anathema in Judaism–it is forbidden throughout Jewish tradition–that Jesus might have spo­ken about bread and wine served at his last supper as being his body and blood is not completely odd, when seen in historical context. In the first century, animal sacrifice was a major part of religious culture. Both Jews and gentiles believed in the power of blood to cleanse sin, to honor or ap­pease heaven. Thus–in what is clearly a hyperbolic, extreme statement–Jesus, knowing he was to die, may well have spoken of his body in sacri­ficial terms.

During the Middle Ages, Christian Europeans told stories of Jews steal­ing the sacred bread (called the “host”) and sticking pins into it–at which point the bread would bleed real blood. Concurrently, when government-sponsored disputations between Christians and Jews were popular (dispu­tations in which the Jew was inevitably going to lose; when Jews appeared to have gained the audience’s sympathy, cartloads of Talmuds were binned), the notion that the “real presence” of Jesus was in the bread and wine eaten during the Christian worship service was a target of Jewish polemic. As one rabbi put it: If Jesus descended to earth to inhabit the bread each time it was consecrated and served, heaven would be full of holes, like cheese.

Since the so-called Protestant Reformation, started by Martin Luther in the 16th century, churches have disagreed on the question of the real presence in the Eucharist. This is where the concepts of “transubtantiation” and “consubstantiation” come in. The former, which is associated primarily with the Roman Catholic Church, is the belief that indeed the bread and wine used in the Eucharist are actually converted into the body and blood of Christ. The latter belief, developed by Luther in opposition to Roman Catholic teaching, states that the wine and bread are not actu­ally transformed, but exist together in union with the body and blood.

Although the theology underlying this practice is alien to Judaism, the origin of this meal is not. The meal in memory of Jesus’ death originally was a full meal, not just a piece of bread and a sip of wine (or in some of the newer traditions, grape juice). It finds its origins both in the seder meal celebrated at Passover and in fellowship meals celebrated by first-century Jews.

Christian Anti-Semitism

Finally, is Christianity necessarily anti-Jewish and, if so, does it lead in­exorably to Auschwitz?

No, and no. That the New Testament has anti-Jewish material I do not doubt, but it is equally true that not all Christians read the material as anti-Jewish. Similarly, I do not read the Exodus story as casting a negative shadow on Egyptians today. To limit “Christianity” to the New Testament is no more appropriate than to limit Judaism to our earliest texts.

What about the relationship of Christianity to Germany’s Nazi beliefs? In September of 2000, about 170 rabbis and Jewish academics signed a statement called Dabru Emet (Speak Truth ), subtitled, “A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity.” Among the eight assertions the signatories supported was that Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon. This plank continues to be the subject of often heated discussion.

It is certainly true that the various Christian movements and machers have more than had their anti-Jewish moments, as a flip through the recent bestseller Constantine’s Sword powerfully demonstrates And newspaper stories on the recently disclosed Nixon tapes have revealed that even Billy Graham [the influential Protestant evangelist] believed Jews controlled the U.S. media and were a danger to U.S. society.

But for much of history these anti-Jewish voices simply sought to convert Jews. Not so for the Nazis.

The baptized nun was just as Jewish–and therefore just as expendable–as the Hasidic rebbe. The Nazi focus was not Judaism as a belief or practice, it was Jews as a race. Did the various anti-Jewish attitudes inculcated through centuries of Christian preaching, art, and teaching facilitate National Socialism’s program? Of course. But was the church a cause of National Socialism? That is a much more difficult claim to make. Indeed, if one were to make this claim, then the numerous righteous gentiles–Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox–who because of their religious beliefs sheltered Jews at the risk of their own lives, become inexplicable.

Changed Realties

It is this brave and benevolent response that anticipates the vast im­provements the past half-century has witnessed in Jewish-Christian rela­tions. On the academic front, Christian scholarship for the most part no longer sees the synagogue as a foil for the church or regards Judaism as a depressing and repressing religion marked by numerous unbearable re­strictions. Christian scholars and teachers now emphasize that Jesus can­not be understood apart from Judaism. If you want to understand Jesus, you must understand the Jewish world in which he lived.

Christians in numerous churches–Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and others–have made formal statements prais­ing the depth of Jewish traditions, theology, and commitment to social justice. In Sunday schools and adult education programs, people in these groups and others are continuing to learn about and therefore appreciate Judaism. It is time for the synagogue to reciprocate.

In church and synagogue, our forms of worship, sacred Scripture, un­derstanding of the divine, and views of salvation differ, but we do have shared moral principles. When asked by a potential follower, “Teach me the Torah while standing on one foot,” Hillel responded: “What is hate­ful to you, do not do to your fellow. All the rest is commentary, go and learn.” When instructing his disciples, Jesus announces: “Whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” The point is not to debate which is the “better” formula:

the “don’t” of Hillel or the “do” of Jesus; both teachings import the same guideline, that we treat our neighbors as ourselves.

Both traditions similarly promote both orthodoxy (literally, “right be­lief”) and orthopraxy (“right action”), even as both debate internally what those positions should be. Although Christianity will typically empha­size that action comes from belief (as Martin Luther put it, “Good works don’t make a good man, but a good man bears good fruit”), the Epistle of James–a text, by the way, that Luther did not like–insists that “faith without works is dead.”

And although Judaism will typically emphasize action, halakhah [Jewish law], that action is premised on the covenant between God and Israel. A first-century Jew was asked, “Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” He responded “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength….And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The citations are from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18; they are quoted here from the Gospel of Matthew.

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