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Explore the intimacies of the other

01 April 2009

In dialogue, Jews and Christians must venture into the depths of faith, says Tony Bayfield

Accurate about Jewish-Christian suffering: White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO/BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY/©DACS

Accurate about Jewish-Christian suffering: White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO/BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY/©DACS

I WAS in Israel two weeks ago, and came across a letter in the Jerusalem Post, demanding that, when the Pope visits Jerusalem in May, he remove his crucifix because it is a symbol of what has pained Jews so much over the past nearly 2000 years.

I cringed. I understand what lies behind the sentiment, but that is pre­cisely why I feel so privileged to have been asked to write four articles setting out a new agenda for Christian-Jewish dialogue.

In the New Year, I argued that we need to find a more fruitful approach to our sacred scriptures, which would force us to stop blaming God for the human limitations in both the Heb­rew Bible and the New Testament (Com­ment, 2 January). Next I fo­cused on Israel: Judaism has a geography as well as a history, and we are siblings, but not identical twins (Comment, 6 Febru­ary). Last month, I argued for much greater humility and a moderation of our truth-claims (Comment, 6 March).

To advocate a shift in the agenda away from Christian persecution of Jews is not about denying the depth of pain that anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism have caused, but rather a way of unblocking that which the pain has blocked.

HALF a lifetime ago, my wife and I rented a house on the edge of the Dordogne. It was an old village house that had not been turned into a slice of bijou Britain. Over the bed hung a crucifix. We were uncomfortable sleep­ing under that pain-filled sym­bol of another religion. But would it be right to take it down?

Much later, it occurred to me that we would not have been half as bothered had there been a Buddha in the room, or a Hindu God. Such exotic otherness is unthreatening, and even attractive. But Christian other­ness is so close that it makes Jews deeply uneasy.

The Christian story and the Jewish story are not the same. But we are siblings. Can we treat each other as such, and explore with familial love and generosity each other’s most intimate belief-symbols?

Matthew and Mark offer me a point at which I feel truly your brother. Both portray Jesus dying in agony on the cross and crying out in Aramaic, the language of our people at that time: “Eli, Eli, lema sabach­thani?” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It is, of course, the opening line of Psalm 22.

Perhaps even Jesus expected what so many in the Judaeo-Christian tradition have longed for, literal divine intervention, for the hand of the Father to come down and snatch him or us from mortal danger. But it does not happen that way. Jesus died on the cross.

The Roman Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz said that no theology is tenable today unless it can be spoken against the background of a million burning children. Let me offer a terrifying, strictly personal ob­servation: God is radically impotent.

IN THE mythology of 16th-century Lurianic Kabbalah, God, “as it were” (the rabbinic phrase signalling the language of myth), contracted into God’s self to make space for the world, and in that world there is no place for miraculous intervention, for what people used to characterise as God’s right hand, God’s saving power. Yet God is still present — as both comforter and redeemer.

In 1938, the Russian Jewish painter Marc Chagall painted his White Crucifixion. It turns the cross into a central image of Jewish-Chris­tian iconography, and speaks with unerring accuracy about Jewish-Christian suffering. The critic Lion­ello Venturi later wrote: “The pity he has always felt for his people has become, because of the present war, a catastrophic vision of all mankind.”

I remember vividly — though it is 20 years ago — a paper on the suffer­ing God in Jewish tradition that the late Rabbi Dr Albert Friedlander gave to a dialogue group of which I was a member. In the introduction to an early rabbinic commentary on Lamenta­tions, God weeps for the destruction of the Temple that God was powerless to prevent.

In the Talmudic Tractate Berachot, we read: “When God remembers his children who dwell in misery, he causes two tears to fall into the ocean and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other.”

In our times, when “religious” fanatics present themselves as God’s saving power, the One who touches me is a suffering God who cannot inter­vene (not “will not”, for if God can intervene but chooses not to, God’s goodness and justice are in tatters). God is present in my life, weeping and comforting, teaching and prompting. God does not pluck me from danger, but alone invests my life with meaning and purpose.

I was having dinner recently with an Anglican colleague, a pillar of the Church, and most obviously “other”. Hesitantly, I shared my Jewish, my sibling response. For me, the cross speaks of a God anguished at suffer­ing rather than a God triumphant over death.

The institutional and historic differences seemed to melt away. In the presence of the victims of funda­mentalist ruthlessness and millions of murdered children, it was the suffer­ing of the innocent and the pity of death that spoke to us both.

Lead us not into religious tri­umphalism, and deliver us from facile optimism. Yet there is love and com­passion, goodness and mercy for ever and ever. Amen.

As I reach this point in this last of my four essays, I realise how much of my personal belief has been exposed. By not turning my back on the Christian garden, and forcing myself to go beyond pain, anger and fear, and enter, I discover that some at least of the otherness turns out to be profoundly familiar (family-ar — how wonderful language is). I am not you, my sister/brother, but I find so much that is familiar, and so much that resonates for me in the narrative of your life.

If reconciliation is truly what we crave, are we not compelled to engage at the most intimate level? Must we not, for the sake of heaven, explore the most light-shy depths of each other’s faiths? As Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, said: “If not now, when?”

Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield is Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, and a President of the Council of Christians and Jews.

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