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A better way to argue over Israel

06 June 2014

Jews and Christians should debate in different, older ways, says Natan Levy


EVER since Jesus's disciples broke the sabbath laws in a Galilean wheatfield, the heart of the Jewish-Christian encounter has been one of argumentation.

The modern state of Israel is simply a new way of arguing over old fault-lines. But, because the argument is freighted by history and the wounds run so deep, we Jews and Christians often choose sly lacunae and elliptical silence over raw dispute. If we could only relearn a bit of Hebrew, I propose that it is time to start arguing over Israel.

I have come to this conclusion about arguing in new tongues only recently. At first, I believed thatour disagreements about Israel could be neatly solved with joint trips to the region. In December, the Board of Deputies of British Jews supported a tour of Jewish and Methodist leaders to Israel and Palestine, to travel and listen together.

On his return, one of the rabbinical participants told me of Daud Nassar, who lives with his family in a tent near Efrat. Mr Nassar, and his father before him, have built eight houses on the same foundation since 1925. Each of those homes lacked a permit, and each was wiped away by bulldozers - first Jordanian, then Israeli.

When he returned home, my friend wanted something tangible. For three years, he had sat studying in Efrat, Mr Nassar's tent being just visible at the furthest window of the yeshiva (the college), and it shook him that a silent tragedy lay within its black goat-hair façade. "If we could help this family," he said, "then our trip was not in vain."

The next day, I called up the Methodist team, brimming with plans to work together. "Not now," the minister replied. "We are too busy writing this boycotting-Israel report."

TRIPS are insufficient, because they look outward, while our arguments run deeper and darker. The fact that the Methodist Church publicised its report just after Easter was a bitter twist of timing in Jewish-Christian relations. It was around the time when many churchgoers were hearing the words of John 20: "The disciples hid behind locked doors for fear of the Jews."

At that point, an angry Jewish retort hit the press. Like the traditional egg that sits on Passover plate and Easter tables alike, when it comes to Israel, it looks as if we Jews and Christians have been arguing in circles these past 2000 years.

It is not only politics that separates us, but a fatal mistranslation of that key term: arguing. In Hebrew, there are two words that are both translated as "argument". One is vikuach, from the Hebrew root for "proof". Vikuach is a debate in which the weight of proof on either side indicates a winner and a loser.

Another Hebrew word for argument, machloket, comes from the Hebrew root chelek, meaning a piece of a whole. In this discourse, each side tacitly accepts that their own opinion is simply a part of something larger; that the other person's point of view is another part of that same whole; and the argument is the shared act of weaving whole cloth from scraps of subjectivity.

THE rabbis love to argue in this machloket sense. The Talmudic corpus is mainly a litany of passionate disagreements across time and space, where every voice offers new jigsaw pieces towards infinite puzzle-work.

Christian theologians, who were initially working mainly in Greek and Latin, had no word for machloket. The Greek polemical tradition is Socrates's setting right the bewildered pupil. Arguments are always vikuach, empowering winners and disabusing losers.

Thus the intricate world of machloket between Jesus of Nazareth - a rabbinical scholar, according to the Talmud - and his rabbinical peers became Hellenised in the Gospels as a succession of "wins" for Jesus versus the Pharisees.

In one episode of contention (Mark 2.23-28), the starving disciples pick grain on shabbat, and thus embody the dynamics for a wonderful machloket with the Pharisees on the blurry space between saving life and keeping the sabbath.

In the ensuing exchange, Jesus innovates with a sanctity-of-life argument that is nearly paralleled in the Talmud itself (Yoma 85b). Yet, in a theology without machloket, that dialectic is gutted. Jesus wins the "argument", defeats the poor Pharisees, and nullifies the shabbat laws.

The real tragedy of such a vikuach reading of core texts is not only that it is a missed opportunity for Jews and Christians to share in a meaningful scriptural dialogue, but that Jesus wins for the wrong reasons. In machloket, Jesus still leaves the Pharisees speechless at the end - not because they are beaten by his cult of personality, but because his argument about the hunger of hungry men is so worthy of being heard that it expands their own shabbat model.

THIS brings us into the moment with the resounding one-sidedness of current statements and campaigns from Churches regarding Israel. These arguments are pure vikuach. The only Jewish theologian quoted in the Church of Scotland's first draft of its 2013 report Inheritance of Abraham? was the lawyer Mark Braverman.

The only Jewish adviser for the in-your-face "Bethlehem Unwrapped" lifesize replica of Israel's security wall last Christmas at St James's, Piccadilly, in London, was the leader of the group Jews for Justice for Palestine (News, 20 December).

The nine-pager from the Methodist Church (News, 2 May) avoids substantive engagement even between various points in the same report, let alone a Jewish "other". For example, section 3.5 conjectures that the Israeli public will dismiss boycotts as "anti-Semitic", while section 6.1 states that boycotts, based on the South African model, maybe a "particularly effective tool"for transforming that same Israeli public.

We Jews and Christians do not require more vikuach. The Methodists do not have to spend this summer with their report behind the doors of their Conference. Let us, instead, envision a summer where we Jews and Christians argue passionately - in the deepest machloket sense - for the rightsof an old farmer in a tent near Efrat.

Machloket, unfortunately, does not fit easily into a short report- but, then again, God doesn't, either.

Rabbi Natan Levy is the Interfaith Consultant for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and co-chairs the Jewish Social Action Forum.

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