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Thomas Cahill’s popular book The Gift of the Jews brought to public attention a profound truth about Judaism. It is this: the Jews invented the notion of history, and with it came a concept of time as linear, with beginning, middle and end. This invention stemmed from their experience of God as liberator from the clutches of fixed cultures that were caste systems. Egypt is, of course, the poster child for this calcified view of human existence as bound to a wheel of repetitious cycles. Israel was the first to get off the wheel.
The scholar Jan Assmann wrote on this in The Invention of Religion. To him, the biblical Book of Exodus is dedicated to the two most important questions humans ask. These are: who is God, and who are we? Exodus proposes interrelated answers to both questions because who we are, according to the narrative, is determined by what God has in mind for us. Assmann: “The Egyptians appear never to have asked themselves such questions.” Exodus represents a great leap forward in the history of religion. Egypt and its values are rejected, Israel begins a new life in history and time. Coupled with this is a new and different understanding of the Divine that involves interaction, relationship, and covenant. We humans gain a sense of transcendence that enables freedom rather than slavery, personality rather than automation.
In The Body of Faith, the late Michael Wyschogrod wrote that the Jewish people were the presence of God in history, an incarnational reality not concentrated in one person. The body of faith is, thus, a visible and physical incarnational community extending across human history. In that 1984 book, Wyschogrod lamented that Judaism, perhaps especially in America, had become denigrated by a concentration on rationality to the point where it has been perceived primarily as an ethical monotheism. Judaism is not based on rationalism, however, according to Wyschogrod; it’s much more than that. The special relationship of God to Israel means God has chosen Israel as his presence in the world. To use the word most associated with Christianity, God is incarnate in the Jewish people.
This is what the covenant is all about; this is not rational in the normal sense of the word, but it is the meaning of Israel in the world, and it follows from that same foundation in the meaning of the Exodus that Assmann put forth.
The idea that Jesus is the incarnation of God, God come in human flesh, is central to Christian faith. This idea grows from our human experience of the Divine transcendence in the immanence of birth, death, and love. It’s a belief that the material world can indeed bear spiritual reality. That’s what the great move represented by the Exodus taught the Hebrews. God is available in human life and in the flow of history. The Christian concept of Incarnation is thus a continuation, in another modality, of Jewish faith.
We must recognize this truth if anti-Judaism is to be overcome in future generations. We do not supersede Judaism; we complement it, and we Christians offer the faith of Israel to the world through another channel.
If you commemorate the birth of Jesus, a thoroughly observant Jewish man, know that that path extends backward to Abraham and Sarah and all those who constituted the Hebrews who came out of Egypt into freedom and who, with others, became the covenant people of Israel. You are walking on a path that extends from Moses forward to the common people of Israel, to the Pharisees and to Mary and Joseph and Jesus and down through time.
Fr. Gabriel Rochelle is priest emeritus of St. Anthony of the Desert Orthodox Church.
Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.