Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Daniel Lasker - The Jewish Critique of Christianity

Here is a lecture that Dr. Daniel Lasker gave at Ohio State last Friday on Jewish polemics against Christianity. He argues that Jews in the Middle Ages were more proactive in crafting anti-Christian polemics and that this genre was not simply a response to Christian polemics. I must admit that I am not yet convinced of his argument. I am mainly interested in what happens in the thirteenth century, the "golden age" of these polemics so to speak, and for this period he fails to make an argument. Here are my notes. As always, all mistakes are mine.

When you are talking about narrative, how do you give a framework to facts? In terms of Jewish writings against Christianity we have the basic facts yet we still have to think about the narrative of this material. There are two sides to this. Christian polemics against Judaism go back to the New Testament itself. The Jewish polemics come much later. The old narrative was that Jews were responding to Christians. If Christians had not initiated there would have been no reason for Jews to write. In Jewish apologetics, Jews are the tolerant ones who believe that the righteous of all faiths have a share in the world to come.
According to Jeremy Cohen, prior to 1170 Jews did not write polemics because Christians were not interested in Jews. Instead Jews held to traditional genres like biblical commentary. At the end of the twelfth century we see Jacob b. Reuben and R. Joseph Kimhi. They were interested merely in protecting Jews, not in going on the offensive.

This narrative is very comfortable to Jews. It makes Jews out to be the tolerant ones who are always the victims. Nineteenth century Jewish historians wrote in an atmosphere that denied Jews writes so they needed to avoid anything that had Jews initiating things. Jacob Katz and Israel Yuval have helped change this model. Katz described Jews as being very comfortable with Christian culture. Yuval wrote about Jews wanting revenge against Christians when the Messiah came. Some of this comes from a discomfort with Jewish power coming from Zionism. If the past two thousand years were not simply Jews being oppressed by gentiles then Jews lose their moral blank check when it comes to dealing with the Palestinians. 

In the first nine centuries of Christian history, there are many adversus Judaeos tracts, but nothing in return. At most you get anti-Christian allusions in rabbinic literature. The rise of Islam marked a major shift. Why would Jews in Muslim countries write polemics against Christianity when there was no Christian missionary campaign? There was another upswing in early modern Italy even without an actual missionary campaign. David Berger argues that Christians were actually responding to Jewish challenges. Very few Dominicans, even in the thirteenth century, were actually involved with preaching to Jews. Some of the nastiest Jewish anti-Christian polemics were not in response to Christianity. Jacob b. Reuben told his Christian friend that he would accept Judaism if he had a brain. (Jacob b. Reuben's Wars of the Lord is a response to a Christian friend who tried to convert him.) Later writers like Crescas are actually more sober. We even see earlier works being toned down.

If the old narrative is no longer viable is there an alternative? Now the old narrative was not completely wrong. Jews did react at least somewhat to Christians. In the thirteenth century, even Ashkenazim turned to polemics. Similarly we have the fifteenth century responses to the forced Tortosa debate. Jews attacked Christianity because Christianity took for itself the Jewish birthright. The first authors of polemical treaties were philosopher theologians. These thinkers formulated a theology of the unity of God. Attacking Christianity was simply a logical extension of this. Andalusian Jews carried on this tradition in the eleventh century due to their philosophical interests. They passed this on to Ashkenazic Jews. This is the picture until the end of the twelfth century when the Christian campaigns began. Here the old narrative comes into play. This situation continued through the fifteenth century in Iberia.


no one said...

the monotheism things seems to me to be a problem. Perhaps you could get out of it like the Russian orthodox do by having Jesus be the energy of God (energia). But then still you would have a problem that they reject the Talmud and mishna.
In other words it is possible for a Christian to be attached to God through Christian worship, But it is still a different religion than Torah.
I don't see how they could ever get by this problem without totally rejecting Paul. And that would leave Jesus just a regular Jewish tzadik like rebbi shimon bar yochai or Choni ha'maagel

Who is Jesus said...

Hello Dude,

You have provided a very good site. Christianity is a monotheistic religion centered on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the largest religion in the world in terms of the number of followers. Thanks a lot for sharing with us...