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Archives / 1998 / October

 

Christians and Jews: Mission impossible?

Jacques B. Doukhan , John Graz

 

In this interview, Jacques Doukhan exposes important insights for Christians as they relate to Jewish people.

John Graz: You have dedicated your life to a better understanding between Jews and Christians. Isn't this a "Mission Impossible"?

Jacques Doukhan: I do feel a particular burden for Jewish-Christian relations. Is it a "Mission Impossible"? I don't know.

It is certainly a challenge for many reasons: because of the painful and shameful history between them; because of so many prejudices and so much ignorance; and worst of all, because of so much indifference on both sides. The fact that I have dedicated my life to that effort, however, implies that I believe it is worthwhile. There is always hope that it is not a "Mission Impossible."

It is also my profound conviction that, to a certain extent, the nature and destiny of both Judaism and Christianity depend on the quality of their relationship. It is significant that both have often built themselves in relation to each other. Through this relationship, Jews and Christians may therefore not only learn to love and respect each other but also discover from each other something important in regard to their own identity. This is not only important for historical and psychological reasons but also important to the more vital question of salvation. I sup pose the main reason for devoting my life to this relationship is not merely theological or academic. For me it is an existential matter. I have carried the Jewish-Christian tension in my flesh.

JG: You grew up in a Jewish family, but you and your father accepted Jesus as your Messiah. This means that you personally experienced in your life the tensions be tween these two strong identities. Is it possible to be Jewish and Christian?

JD: My father was on his way to be coming a rabbi when a number of dramatic circumstances confronted us with the possibility that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.

For him and also for me, this discovery was traumatic. It was a shock for all our family and the Jewish Sephardic community of our little town of Constantine (Algeria). My mother never followed. She was very op posed and fought against it forcefully. Many members of the family from both sides intervened. Several friends and the rabbis came and talked with us. It was not an easy choice. My father struggled all the more, because he remained faithful to his Jewish identity. He still attended the synagogue and observed the Jewish festivals. My father always considered himself a Jew.

It is in that context that I was exposed to the Christian message. It is through my father and with my father through his questions and through his suffering that I learned to discover the figure of Jesus the Messiah. Like my father, I never rejected my roots. I immersed myself in Jewish tradition, and my father insisted on maintaining in me the Jewish values, the intense study of the Hebrew Scriptures, the importance of ethics, the reverence of the Sabbath, the affirmation of life, etc. As a Jewish boy, I attended the Hebrew school from the age of five. But I wanted to go further, so I extensively studied the Hebrew language, rabbinics, and even modern Hebrew literature at the University of Strasbourg, where I obtained a doctorate in Hebrew and Jewish studies under the direction of the Jewish philosopher Andre Neher. I even attended a yeshiva for several years. I wanted to learn as much as I could in order to ensure that I was making the right choice. In the course of this spiritual journey, I not only learned from my father, but I also understood the passion of my mother's fight.

So to your question "Is it possible to be Jewish and Christian?" I am at first tempted to respond Yes. Remember, the first Christians were Jews, and for them the two identities were not mutually exclusive. Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John never rejected their Jewish roots. As far as the content is concerned the value, the truth, so to speak yes, it is possible to be Jewish and Christian. It may even be considered as a valuable asset, however difficult. There is a Yiddish proverb, "Shwer zu sein hayid" ("It is difficult to be a Jew"), but it is more difficult to be a Jew and a Christian. And that's because it is difficult, and to some ex tent unbearable, to recognize and embrace the values and the truth from a people when those people happened also to be your oppressors.

JG: I suppose that when a Jew hears the word Jesus he does not think of the person of Jesus but of what the "Christians" have done: pogroms and concentration camps. In other words, is there any hope of reconciliation after Auschwitz?

JD: You just hit at the most sensitive cord. As American President Bill Clinton once said: "It is difficult to disassociate the message from the messenger." Because of the painful and shameful history you just evoked, the name of Jesus has been associated in the Jewish consciousness with the memory of massacre, discrimination, and rejection for 2,000 years, the systematic "teaching of contempt" all climaxing at Auschwitz. Many Christians still do not realize the nature of that connection; and, consciously or not, they keep nurturing their mentalities with the old poison teaching and preaching the curse against the Jews who are charged with the most horrible crime of humanity, deicide: the killing of God.

Meanwhile, there is the supersession theology, which denies the Jews and Israel the right even to be Israel, since the "true Israel" is another people. (This theory has been denounced as "a spiritual holocaust.") This goes along with all kinds of strange ideas that Christians still entertain about the Jews: the myth of the Jewish plot, the association of the Jew with deception and money, etc. I am here referring to the old beast called "anti-Semitism."

You asked me if there is hope of reconciliation after Auschwitz. As long as Christians, whoever they are and whatever community they belong to, do not understand and recognize their responsibility at Auschwitz; as long as they are still fueling the fire and pushing in the same direction; as long as they keep in their heart anti-Semitic ideas and feelings there is no hope of reconciliation. With Auschwitz, Jewish-Christian history has reached a point of no return. After Auschwitz, it is no more decent to think or act or feel in the ways that have produced Auschwitz. To hope for a reconciliation after Auschwitz amounts then to hope in a genuine "conversion" on the part of the Christians. As long as Christians will not take this sin of anti-Semitism seriously, as long as they are not ready to turn back, repent, and recognize the Jewish roots that bear them, there is no hope for reconciliation. As a result, we can even say that there is no hope for any other reconciliation, and I mean here especially the Christian reconciliation with the God of Israel Himself.

The relation between the two connections is such that a Christian theologian has gone so far as to denounce anti-Semitism as a sin against the Holy Spirit, i.e., an unforgivable sin. This may sound exaggerated for many who have not come to comprehend the hideous nature of this sin and its implications, and that's simply because they have gotten so used to it.

JG: In one of your books, you explain how it is difficult for a Jew who believes in Jesus to be accepted as a Jew by the Jews. What about the Christians? Is it easy for a Jew to become a member of the Christian family? Do you feel well-accepted among us?

JD: It is true that for the last few years some Jews who identified themselves as Christians have had their application for Israeli citizenship turned down. This has not always been the case; and some political experts think that this law may change in the near future. I must also add that according to the Jewish law (Halakhah), a Jew always remains a Jew whatever he does, even if he identifies himself as a Christian. Ironically, the Nazis have demonstrated the truth of this observation. The anti-Semite Drumont used to say, "When a Jew becomes Christian, we have one more Christian, but we don't have one less Jew."

As far as I am concerned---and you asked me a personal question---I must say that, in spite of their disapproval, my family and my Jewish friends never rejected me as a Jew. They consider me as a little marginal, but they respect me even when angry with me at times.

When it comes to my integration into Christian society, this is more complex. I have never hidden my Jewish identity; I have ever affirmed it in my lectures, my writings, and my private conversations. And it is clearly recognized in my professional life: I have chosen to teach Hebrew and Jewish studies; I am involved in Jewish-Christian dialogue and am a member of the Society of Jewish Studies. I am the director of the newly created Institute of Jewish-Christian Studies at Andrews University. I am the editor of two Jewish-Christian journals (Shabbat Shalom, L'Olivier). All this speaks loudly of my Jewish identity.

Yet the very fact that you are asking me this question in those terms suggests that to some degree I have remained a foreigner. So my answer to your question must be ambivalent. Yes, I feel well-accepted; I feel that I am one of you. Yet being a Jew in a Christian society, I am constantly, at each step of my life, reminded of the Jewish-Christian problem: "innocent" jokes, theologically sweeping statements, suggestive smiles, and also some unpleasant experiences always reviving the same wound. But I have many good friends, and you are one of them, with whom I feel at ease being myself, whatever that may mean, and with whom this question becomes irrelevant.

JG: The public lectures that you give around the world are very successful. Eighty percent of the attendees are Jews. How can you explain that?

JD: I have lectured all over the world in many cities in France, Switzerland, Canada, and, more recently, in Australia. I am always amazed by the great interest many Jews and also Christians have nowadays in the issues I am debating. It is always difficult to explain success, especially if you are personally involved. I think, however (speaking in human terms), that the attendance of so many Jews is perhaps due to my personal as well as my academic back ground, my studies in Jerusalem, my writings. The people are intrigued.

It is also true that my presentations as a university professor give me a more neutral, and therefore less suspect, image. I also think that many Jews attend my lectures precisely because of the topics I choose to speak of and because I am discussing issues that are theirs as well as mine. And yet, in my lectures, I am not addressing Jews only; I am also speaking to Christians. Because the issues are interrelated, I have found that the most effective way to communicate with this one group is through relating to the other group.

My lectures revolve around the Jewish- Christian tension, and I confront the two parties. Speaking just to the Jews would end up being offensive and is always suspect. At the same time, this method is not a shrewd strategy for attracting the Jews. I present my findings and my message with honesty and candor but also with passion and deep conviction. I also do it in such a way that new perspectives and fresh insights are suggested. Although I remain respectful to various cultural and religious sensitivities, I bring up hot theological issues such as the Torah, the Sabbath, the Messiah, the condition of people in death, but I also touch on human issues such as anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, Israel, the interconfessional dialogue.

I remember at one of my lectures a Roman Catholic theology doctoral student who came to me in shock. She had never heard what I was saying, and she wanted to hear more. I also remember a young Israeli man who was puzzled by my explanations and asked for some literature through which he could pursue the issues further. Then there was a Polish Jewish lady, an Auschwitz survivor, who was moved to tears and with whom I had a long conversation. I also recall a Presbyterian lady who was surprised and "so disappointed" that my lectures had not been more broadly advertised in Jewish-Christian associations.

JG: How does the Jewish community react to your lectures?

JD: I must say that the acceptance is ambivalent. At first, they are suspicious. Some are angry. But after the first lecture and private conversations, I have discovered that they become more attentive and interested. At Marseilles, I was even invited to speak on the Jewish radio. I was not only interviewed, but my book was advertised there, and some of my lectures were broad cast. A rabbi bought several tapes of my lectures about "Sabbath and Hope." In Melbourne, I was interviewed on the Israeli station and could speak in Hebrew on the very issues about which I was lecturing. The conversation was broadcast throughout the country where many Israelis live.

JG: Several Christian organizations are trying to convert Jews. The reaction of the Jews is very strong against this. Is it possible to share the hope of Jesus without hurting their sensitivities?

JD: Today, after the Holocaust and centuries of Christian effort to eliminate the Jews from the scene of history, any open at tempt to "convert" Jewish people will trigger strong reactions. Christians who want to share with Jews "the hope of Jesus" should, therefore, first of all ask themselves a question about their real motives. Why do they want to "convert" Jews? Do they intend to transform them into their image and thus erase their Jewish identity?

So, to your difficult question, I will simply answer: Yes, it is possible for Christians to share this hope with the Jews. But, as you say, it must be done without threatening their Jewish identity. The richness and the beauty of their Jewish heritage should be respected.

Another question Christians should honestly ask themselves relates to the con tent of this hope we are talking about. Am I really bringing to the Jews something that will enrich them or impoverish them? Do they really need what I intend to share with them? This question may shock some Christians who hardly see any other values and truths outside of their own set of values and habits of thinking. This question is important, however, for it is a way of testing whether or not we have the right approach. Through that question, the Christian is compelled to resituate himself/herself, to test his/her convictions to make sure that his/her Christian faith is not a mere veneer of culture; that it is, indeed, a rich, vital, and profound experience that has a universal quality. In other words, the conversion of the Christian is a prerequisite for the conversion of the Jew.

JG: Do we have to become Jewish to be accepted by the Jews?

JD: No, this is not what I mean. Of course, the apostle Paul suggests that approach: "Greek with the Greeks and Jew with the Jews." But in saying that, he does not imply that we have to change our identity in order to be able to reach out to Jews. A man does not need to become a woman in order to be able to reach out to women, and vice versa. The Greeks knew that Paul was a Jew. He could not hide it. But at least he could try to speak their language and understand their culture and start from where they were even if it meant referring to a pagan god, as was the case at Athens. But again, he did not play the Greek; he did not dis guise himself into a Greek nobleman. He remained a Jew and addressed the people while taking into consideration their culture and social context.

JG: Are you referring to the "missiological" principle of contextualization?

JD: Yes. But there is often confusion when it comes to this principle: You cannot be naturally what you are not. Otherwise, it becomes a comedy, often not a well-played comedy, and then the message does not pass; or if it does, it is received as a fake. It will not be taken seriously. I have observed that very quickly the game is unmasked, and the result is catastrophic. As for the Jews, the intended audience, you can be sure that they have easily detected what is phony about it. Either they will be offended and angry with you, or they will laugh.

This attitude has nothing to do with the principle of contextualization as under stood by the apostle Paul, not to mention the ethical problem. You cannot witness to the truth while not being true. This is common sense. Remain yourself, but at the same time do not force them to become a mechanical duplication of yourself. Respect their difference; let them remain Jews in themselves. Then, true communication will work, and you will be able to listen to each other and receive from each other.

JG: What can be done to improve the connection between Jews and Christians?

JD: There is so much to be done. And this work, of course, concerns both Jews and Christians. This is why we have the journal Shabbat Shalom. The title of the journal is already suggestive of the program and the philosophy behind it. We want to promote a better understanding between us and Jews. It aims at the Jewish reconciliation, the Shalom, the peace. And it roots this ideal in the common anchor of Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom is a journal sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Jews and Seventh-day Adventists are not aware of the common ground they share with each other. In addition to the Shabbat (Sabbath), there is the holistic view of life, the dietary rules, the importance of the Scriptures, etc.

Jews and Seventh-day Adventists need to know more about each other. This is the reason Shabbat Shalom contains interviews with rabbis and famous Jewish personalities, such as Nobel Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, as well as Christians and especially Seventh-day Adventist personalities such as Dr. B. B. Beach. This journal treats various topics such as "Suffering," the "Sabbath," "the Law," "Hope," etc., from a Jewish- Christian perspective. Not only Jews but also Christians, and especially Seventh-day Adventists, should read the journal and then share it with a Jewish or Christian friend. This common reading will help to create a framework for further discussion.

JG: Could you suggest a few measures to help us in this enterprise?

JD: I have at least seven:

1. Work seriously within your soul and mind and mouth to purify yourself from any kind of anti-Semitic prejudice. Become friends with a Jew.

2. Create opportunities for interaction. Set up cultural events of Jewish-Christian interest on special occasions, such as a Jewish festival, a Friday night, a national anniversary (Holocaust Day). From time to time attend events organized by the Jewish community. Be the member of a Jewish- Christian association.

3. Introduce into your liturgy songs and even readings of Jewish inspiration. These will often enhance your understanding and communication of your truth. Invite Jewish friends.

4. Avoid the use of pictures of Jesus and of "crosses." These signs are often interpreted by Jews as marks of idolatry. As for the cross, it is always associated in the Jewish mind with the painful memory of oppression. Remember that it is the cross reminding of the crucifixion that inspired the Crusades (derived from the word cross) and the pogroms. Besides, the traditional Christian taste for "crosses" can suggest a morbid preoccupation with death that hurts the natural Jewish sensitivity about affirming the value of life.

5. Organize workshops in your community to create a "Jewish awareness" (invite a specialist; see no. 7).

6. Promote Shabbat Shalom. Read, enjoy, and share it with your Jewish and Christian friends (see ad on p. 19).

7. Call upon the services of the recently created Institute of Jewish-Christian Studies at Andrews University. Workshops, books, pamphlets, and tapes will be available soon.

JG: Dr. Doukhan, do you think that one day a good Jew will be able to use the name of Jesus without feeling deeply hurt?

JD: Definitely yes. And I believe the day has already come. Of course, I am one example among many others. Paradoxically after the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, more and more Jews are able to disassociate Jesus from the offensive Christian testimony. It is interesting that much more has been written about Jesus in Hebrew in the last thirty years than in the eighteen previous centuries. Along with Christians who begin to reconsider their Jewish roots and learn to love the law of the God of Israel, many Jews begin to realize that Jesus belongs to their Jewish heritage and as such deserves their attention. Yes, I believe that there is reason to hope that our task isn't, indeed, a "Mission Impossible."

 

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