A Rabbi’s Error
Patrick Henry Reardon on Jonathan Sacks’s Mistake About Christians
In his more than twenty scholarly books, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has certainly demonstrated his credentials as a bright light in contemporary Judaism. I value him especially as a sensible and irenic spokesman for Jewish self-understanding.
In this respect, his most recent work, Future Tense: Jews, Judaism, and Israel in the Twenty-First Century, does not disappoint. (This is an intriguing title, by the way. In the expression “future tense,” which word is the noun and which the adjective? The book’s content indicates it can be understood either way!)
In order to speculate usefully on Judaism’s future, Sacks believes it is important to begin with its past, especially the extraordinary phenomenon of its survival over the past twenty centuries. The key to this history, Sacks believes, lies in the concept of berith, “covenant.” The Jews, he explains, “were a society before they were a state. They had laws before they had a land. They had a social covenant before they had a social contract. So, even if the contract failed, the covenant remained” (emphasis his). Whatever the value of Social Contract theory, he contends, it does not apply to the Jews.
The Blessing of Jewish Uniqueness
What is the difference between a covenant and a contract? According to Sacks, “the logic of the covenant, unlike the social contract of the state, has nothing to do with rights, power, and self-interest.” He explains: “A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity.”
I am persuaded that Sacks is correct in this assessment. Whether or not anyone else regards the Jews as the Chosen People, they are convinced on the point, and this conviction not only explains Jewish survival down through history; it is also a fact that renders the Jews manifestly unique as a people.
This uniqueness does not mean, however, that redemption is for the Jews only. On the contrary, Sacks argues, it has been the vocation of the Jews to teach the world, not through a canon of correct propositions, but through Halakha, a particular law and way of life. All of humanity may share in the blessing of Abraham; it is to everyone’s benefit that the Jews be the Jews. Nor do the Jews feel any compulsion to convert others to Judaism, inasmuch as “Israel has no monopoly on virtue or wisdom or grace.”
Jewish particularity, as Sacks sees it, extends through history the goodness of particular things in Creation itself—what he calls “the dignity of difference.” This is how he understands the universal hope conveyed in the awesome story of this particular people.
Not for a moment am I disposed to challenge these claims. Indeed, I regard them as deep insights into the history and identity of the Jews.
On the other hand, Sacks would scarcely be shocked to learn that a Christian—myself, for instance—finds his explanation of Jewish uniqueness insufficient. For the Christian conscience, an adequate appreciation of Judaism should make some reference to a particular Galilean carpenter of our acquaintance.
Out of Plato’s Cave
While I think Sacks’s assessment of Judaism is ultimately inadequate, his comments about us Christians are downright distressing—in particular his claim that we adhere to Plato by finding truth only in universal forms. Oh, dear. Unless second-century Gnostics are to be the spokesmen for Christianity, Sacks’s claim is mind-bogglingly bogus.
The first article of the Christian Creed is not “I believe in the unity of the Demiurge,” but “I believe in one God, almighty Father and Creator of all things.” Christians do not look at the world through the eyes of Plato, but through the eyes of Moses. And Christians take Moses seriously for one reason only: Jesus took Moses seriously.
Christians see a connection between the particularity of the Jews and the particularity of Jesus. We believe in the uniqueness of the Jews because we adhere to certain dogmatic positions with respect to Jesus. It was he who proclaimed, “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). It is Jesus who makes precious to us “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4).
Yes, it is true that Jews taught the world about the goodness of particular things, but it is also a fact that the Jews who did this were a particular group: the “apostles.” I am not sure how the irenic Rabbi Sacks missed this elementary fact: Jewish wisdom mainly influenced mankind—including mankind’s cosmology—through the Christian gospel.
Sacks cannot simply dismiss us as Platonists. If millions of people today believe in the “non-Platonic miracle of creation,” it is because they believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. When he came forth from the grave, we believe, Jesus conducted all of us out of Plato’s Cave. Truly, Rabbi, we decline to go back.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“A Rabbi’s Error” first appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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