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Artillery Row

The thorny problem Christianity and Judaism never address

Why do Christianity and Judaism still find it so hard to get along?

Ambling down the train carriage aisle, eagerly scanning the seat numbers, I found my table-seat reservation—and an Orthodox Jew in my spot, busily reading the Torah. Opposite him sat a young boy in a skull cap, possibly his son or nephew.

There is a range of individuals who I’m not at all comfortable about asking to move even if they are in my reserved seat: senior citizens, young citizens, pregnant women, women who aren’t pregnant—pretty much anyone other than a young fit guy, and even in that instance I might have pause: he may have just had some devastating family news, been dumped by the love of his life, etc. Given recent and longer history, Orthodox Jews clearly fall into the bracket of not being asked to move.

It was made easier by the fact that a table seat on the other side of the aisle was free. The only problem in taking that one was that the woman on the other side of the table then started quivering about social distancing if you are not from the same household as she scrunched herself closer to the window. I tried to explain that I believed it was fine as long as you weren’t sitting face to face, rather diagonally from each other, as we were.

“I don’t think any train staff will check or say anything,” the Jewish man said, as I readily chimed in with my agreement. The ice broken, the man and I ended up chatting, covering where each of us were going to the forthcoming US election. The young boy chipped in a few times with wide-eyed innocent charm, leaving me with that annoyingly aging thought of “What a nice young boy—the world will be all right with more of the likes of him.”

We all need as many blessings as we can get

It brought to mind another train-borne encounter with the Jewish faith, when I shared a table with an Orthodox Jewish family—the two parents and a child. As they took their seats, the husband and wife squabbled amiably, leaving me feeling like I was in a scene from a Woody Allen film. After settling, the man placed a tallit prayer shawl around his shoulders and started to pray. I can’t remember how it happened, but I ended up going to the buffet car and getting the man a bottle of water or something small like that. When I declined his offer to pay for it—I had recently returned from the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and was in a munificent frame of mind—he said the least he could do was give me a blessing in return. He began quietly chanting in Hebrew. I was beyond touched. We all need as many blessings as we can get, and I was getting one from the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, dating back nearly 4,000 years.

It’s a long way from when I went to a Catholic prep school as an eight-year-old and found the lexicon at the tuck shop routinely involved sayings such as “Don’t be a Jew”, or “Don’t be such a Yid”, if you declined to share your Apple Jack sweets or fizzy cola bottles. I imagine that almost everyone, like me, had never actually met a Jew and simply used the words because everyone else was doing so. There were only two Jewish figures I was familiar with at school: Shylock from the Merchant of Venice and Anne Frank, who both popped up in English literature classes (my familiarity with Jews didn’t develop much more during my teenage years bar beyond exposure to Woody Allen films). I can’t believe a single boy was knowingly antisemitic. But clearly those phrases pointed toward something that still threaded through society in the 1990s.

Plenty has been said about the Labour Party’s recent problems with anti-Semitism. The main causes of anti-Semitism—sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest hatred—go back a very long way. There was widespread suspicion throughout Europe that Jews retained too much racial autonomy and cultural identity, based on their religious otherness, social clannishness, strong cultural richness and frequent eminence or economic success. This was compounded by disapproval of the degree of disconnection from the host societies they joined. During my latest excursion to northern Spain on another Camino, I recently passed through the Spanish city of San Vicente de la Barquera whose prominent Jewish Quarter was all but wiped out in 1483, with what little managed to remain devoured by a blaze in 1636.

Despite their close connections, Christian and Jewish faiths exist in entirely separate silos

Another angle on the complex and rarely analysed relationship that Christian-based societies like ours have with Jews is how little interaction there is between the Christian and Jewish faiths and their respective followers—they exist in entirely separate silos—despite their close connections, ranging from common use of the Bible, to various parallels, commonalities and shared values within the two religions. The only Jewish-related exposure most Catholics get comes from Scripture readings, and if you are the sort of person that only goes to mass on the big feast days, you might only hear about the Jews condemning Jesus in the lead up to Easter. That’s basically all you get. The Jews killed Jesus. It’s a little myopic to say the least. It’s rare to hear a priest at the pulpit directly address Christianity’s derivation from Judaism. After all, if those Jews hadn’t insisted on Jesus being crucified rather than Barabbas, his mission to save mankind by dying for our sins couldn’t have been completed. There would have been no resurrection, opening the door for humanity to eternal life; nor would there have been Christianity and all that it has done to shape Western civilization. Does that mean we should actually be thanking Jews for initiating this seismic event?

At the same time, Jewish faith leaders don’t appear to speak out about how the Christian and Jewish faiths should relate to each other, especially when it comes to Jesus. I spoke to a good American Jewish friend about this and he said that the issue of Jesus being condemned by Jews, and who he was, just isn’t raised among Jews. In defence of Jewish doubts, Jesus is a lot to take in—and accept. Beyond the gospels, which are clearly a little biased, one of the best and most honest presentations of Jesus that I have comes across is in The Master and Margarita by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. To be honest, I found this much acclaimed novel pretty hard work; but the chapters that depict Jesus’s arrest and presentation before Pontius Pilate are spellbinding. Bulgakov manages to depict Jesus as both a bonkers radical but also a man of unworldly wisdom and powers who leaves Pontius Pilate agonising over the mistake he could be making in condemning Jesus.

The fate of Jesus at the hands of the Jews may not be dissected openly by either side, but it has surely played a large part in how Jews have endured one of the worst, if not the worst, fallouts from the menace of identity politics—the response of a bawdy group of Jews more than 2,000 years ago staining an entire people.

No wonder Jews have developed a keen sense of protective humour after all they have endured

The irony today is that some people appear to feel they can again write off swathes of humanity, demanding that pound of flesh in retribution—white heterosexual males being top of the list currently, it would appear—based on the actions of a few bad actors. In the push back against this divisive ideology, secular public figures such as Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson have been ably joined by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013.

Sacks writes in his 2020 book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times:

A new phenomenon has begun to emerge: of ‘identity politics’—political campaigning focused not on the nation as a whole but on a series of self-identifying minorities, leading to the counter-politics of populism on behalf of a beleaguered and enraged native-born population who see themselves side-lined by the elites and passed over in favour of the minorities.

Sacks follows this with a description of the current perilous state of the West laid out by Bill Emmott, the writer and editor-in-chief of The Economist magazine from 1993 to 2006. “Demoralised, decadent, deflating, demographically challenged, divided, disintegrating, dysfunctional, declining,” Emmott writes in his book “The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea.”

Sacks couples this assessment with a well-known and more condense Jewish saying: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”

That’s very Woody Allen, and no wonder Jews have developed a keen sense of protective humour after all they have endured. Sacks does a great job in his book of mining four thousand years of Jewish survival to offer the rest of us the resulting wisdom. Ultimately, he parses how “a society with only competition and very limited cooperation will be abrasive and ruthless, with glittering prizes for the winders and no consolation for the losers”, while also offering a resolute defence of moral truths that are increasingly presented by some today as outdated and unnecessary and of apparently endangered virtues such as forgiveness.

Despite all this and the inspiring work of the likes of Sacks, I’m not considering converting. But the more I learn about Judaism and Jewish culture—this Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah just gone I ended up baking a Challah bread, inspired by my American Jewish friend—the more I am intrigued. I hope I can continue addressing my Judeo-Christian roots and that church leaders on both sides help facilitate that process. Jesus, whether the son of God or just a rebellious Galilean hippy, isn’t going away anytime soon.

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