Christians, Jews, and The Great Rift

Rav Tsair and The Apostle Paul, c. 1657 by Rembrandt

Christians, Jews, and The Great Rift

I prefer to think of that world-historical-fault-line as a long, reparable misunderstanding.  Whether or not that’s the right view, personally I want to patch it up. 

Yet I recall a Jewish scholar, speaking at an interfaith event, who voiced a different opinion: the two religions, he said, had distinct, specialized callings.  Their rift might have been Providential. 

Maybe so, but it’s been bloody work.  Recently, the whole sad history became painfully present for me as I read a book purporting to survey the entire Talmud.  

The Talmud is the many-layered commentary on the Hebrew Bible.  It comes in two broad sections, the first in Hebrew, the second in Aramaic.  Originally transmitted orally, the Hebrew part was collected and committed to writing around 200 CE, while the Aramaic layer followed about 400 years later, in two versions: Babylonian and Jerusalemite. 

Talmudic commentary has been ongoing since then, not closed like the Biblical canon.  Though considered imbued with divine inspiration, it preserves minority as well as majority opinions.  It is thus an invitation to inspired argument – its interpretations necessarily flexible as Jewish life adapted itself to changing situations different from the Biblical ones.  This plasticity avoided a break with the past and made Jewish continuity possible.

The author of the book I read is a public intellectual who has done outstanding work, but not a Talmud scholar.  He had completed the Daf Yomi or ”daily page” program, whose followers read one page of Talmud daily.  At that pace, it takes seven and a half years to get through it in the approved English translation.  Coincidentally, I’d recently read a book by a different public intellectual for whom I also had high regard.  Both of these opinion-shapers came up with a similar estimate of Talmud:

not much to see here

They didn’t say it like that, but to me it seemed obvious.

Now I know that a text originally meant to be transmitted orally, and only with insider guidance, is an esoteric work.  The meanings aren’t evident on its face, but require decoding.  Some of that decoding one finds in a philosopher like Levinas and I have also read fragments of it elsewhere.  Sitting in on study sessions with insiders, I’ve felt like I died and went to heaven.  What I gleaned in such conversations was dense, nuanced and illuminated.  All the same, I emerged from my recent, brief, outsider tour of Talmud feeling pretty decentered.

However, there are such things as providential interventions.  They come silently, like silk lining on the underside of rough-textured experience.  One came a day or so later, when I happened to watch a video of an Arab Israeli speaking in defense of his country.  His country?  Upwards of 70% of the Arab population of Israel deems itself Israeli, not Palestinian, the speaker reported.  The derisive term “apartheid” is fiction, he said, without bearing on their lives.  Arab enrollment in universities and achievement in the professions is equivalent to that of Israeli Jews.  And it compares favorably with that of Muslim co-religionists outside of Israel. 

Though army service isn’t compulsory for Israeli Arabs, the speaker had volunteered for the IDF.  He’d been wounded in combat, fainting after a horrified glimpse of his shattered right leg and missing right foot.  When he woke in hospital, he looked fearfully down under the blanket only to see – his foot there!  The soldiers in his unit had saved it and the surgeons had managed to reattach it!  It’s now a working foot.  He can walk on it.  What combat surgeon will do that — or can?

Why did this video feel like silk against abraded skin for me?  For two thousand years of exile, Jews had put their covenantal assignment through the conduits of Talmudic commentary on the Bible.  Reports like those of the Arab Israeli suggested to me that that way of preserving the Jewish assignment hadn’t been deluded or contrived.  Spiritual reality was perpetuated by passing it through the Talmudic pipeline.

A day or two later, another piece of silk lining slid into place in the form of an email from a young scholar named Yair Rosenberg.  He was giving me a heads up.  An article of his, titled “Why Did Einstein Promote the Talmud When He Couldn’t Read It?” was about to appear in his online column for The Atlantic magazine.  It concerned the consequential relations between my grandfather, Chaim Tchernowitz, known by his pen name of Rav Tsair (‘the young rabbi”), and Einstein.  They’d met in Berlin, when my grandfather was taking his German doctorate in Judaica.  Did I by any chance have a photo of the two men?  I did in fact.  It’s now featured in the article. 

In the course of their long friendship, Einstein endorsed a Talmudic project of my grandfather’s in a public letter which closely paraphrased an earlier letter to him from Rav Tsair.  Here’s a bit of my grandfather’s first communication:

A scientific knowledge of the Talmud is needed, especially by us Jews, because we are dealing here with our national cultural treasure; the sages of the Talmud were the spiritual heirs of the biblical world … .”

The article in the online Atlantic is carefully researched, clearly written and brings their relationship fully to light in detail for the first time.  Reading it, I learned of aspects of my grandfather that I’d not known, and refreshed my understanding of him, as a large figure, capable of bringing spiritual and scholarly resources to the support of the nascent Jewish state.  He died at the end of my childhood.  I loved him and he remained an imprinting influence in my life.

Had Providence looked for a balm to heal my abraded sense of past-to-future direction, it could have found none so effective and precisely targeted as this.

Meanwhile, as it happens, to get my mind off personal anomie, I’d been reading a book titled The Early Christians: In Their Own Words by Eberhard Arnold.  It’s a compilation of communications from the followers of Jesus in the first two centuries of the common era, when Christianity was a capital crime under Roman law. 

These people took the Sermon on the Mount literally.  They would actually give their cloak to a thief who’d just grabbed their coat and really turn the other cheek to someone who’d slapped them on the first side of the face.  They took meals in common.  Widowed people did not remarry.  Sexual intercourse was for procreation only.  Lifelong virginity was prized.  Unchaste thoughts were held equivalent to adultery.  They were pacifists.  They regarded pagan gods as demons and pagan vices as the outcome of worshipping demons.  Socrates they respected as a proto-Christian, martyred for repudiating pagan worship. 

So far, I’ve seen no mention of Original Sin, redemption of it through Christ’s crucifixion, or the Trinity, but they confidently expected Christ to take them to heaven directly, once the lions in the colosseum had finished making a dinner of them.

This was no technicolor Bible movie!  I do feel a connection to Jesus but I wasn’t at all sure that I would’ve liked these people.  That said, they are an impressive lot — fitted like guided missiles to pierce and bring down the classical world – not necessarily its remarkable achievements – mainly the cruel coarseness of its daily life. 

“Christianity,” a colleague once remarked, “is Judaism for export.” 

Oh well.  Someone had to do it.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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