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
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
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
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
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
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
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