Towards a Jewish-Christian Alliance: An Interview with Rabbi Joshua Haberman

Editor’s note: Rabbi Haberman is president of the Foundation for Jewish Studies in Washington, D.C.; the senior rabbi emeritus of the Washington Hebrew Congregation; and adjunct professor at the Wesley Theological Seminary. Robert Lakind conducted this interview while interning in Social and Political Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Rabbi, please describe the circumstances behind your involvement with the evangelical Christian community.

My very first pulpit was in Mobile, Alabama, from 1944 until 1946 as an interim rabbi, a position I enjoyed immensely. I made close contact with a number of Christian ministers, whom I remain in contact with to this day. My contacts with their community had been on many levels even before I was ordained as a rabbi, including as a faculty member of several Methodist Christian summer camps as their so-called student rabbi in residence. In every community I was invited to take part in countless prayer breakfasts and communal civic meetings. All of these communities solicited my participation with open doors, and I responded wholeheartedly to them. I owe these contacts to the friendship and the characteristic beliefs of the various Christian denominations.

Interestingly enough, approximately 15 to 16 years ago, there was a groundswell of action from the evangelical community seeking contact with Jewish groups. It was on their initiative, more than mine, that I became involved with evangelicals, as they sought to encourage solidarity between the two groups. I said, “solidarity about what?”, and was really taken by surprise when they told me to help establish and strengthen the Jewish commonwealth in Israel.

This profound interest in Zionism is a remarkable facet of evangelical Christianity. It is not just out of friendship for Jews, or compassion for Jewish refugees who need a homeland. It derives from evangelicals’ own self-understanding that Zionism is the restoration of the Jews to their land. The evangelical eschatological timetable contains an element of faith that the ancient biblical commonwealth will be restored and that the Jewish people will again be rooted in their ancient homeland. To evangelical Christians, this vision of the restoration of the biblical past into a new biblical future is a vital element of faith. It accounts for profound sympathy that evangelical Christians have for Israel’s struggle today and evangelical Christians identify with Jews in what they call the Holy Land. The support of evangelical Christians for Israel is a very important and significant support element which I appreciate as a Jew.

What are the prospects for ecumenism?

It all depends what we mean by ecumenism. If by ecumenism we mean a wishy-washy leveling down to the lowest common denominator, then I don’t think it has much hope. Those who really care about their religion want it specific, with a real faith commitment; they don’t want to compromise it. I am among those who would not want to compromise any of my faith. But if we are talking about not only greater acquaintance and knowledge of each other, but a sense of interdependence and the discovery of a profound common faith affirmation, then I think we are in that age.

There’s been a revolution in biblical research and in the theology of both Jews and Christians which has brought us together with great expectations and a new attitude. What we are seeing is an historic change that has been evolving for well over a century, bringing mutual acceptance and respect. Christians are now seeking their roots in Judaism. Jews recognize that Christianity is in many ways a variety of Judaism. For two centuries Christians were really part of the Jewish world, and were considered a sect within Judaism.

It’s not the ecumenism of 60 or 70 years ago, which in large measure was a back-slapping, mutual friendship, hand-shaking type of affair. The new ecumenism is based upon advances of scholarship which have brought Jews and Christians to a profound meeting of the minds, still realizing their important differences. We recognize now many common traits and items of faith central to both Judaism and Christianity.

How do you see the current condition of Catholic-Jewish relations?

In some respects, better than that of Jewish-Protestant relations. First of all, the Roman Catholic Church ritualistically has much more appreciation for the traditions and the biblical faith system as it operated in the days of the Temple. Many of the symbols of the Temple are preserved within the Catholic hierarchy, the Catholic Church, and the Mass. Secondly, I think that the Catholic Church theologically resembles much of Judaism, whereas a number of Christian denominations represent a certain, specific theological outlook. The Roman Catholic Church, being global in its breadth, has been able to accommodate within itself a variety of different positions simultaneously. This is true of Judaism as well.

We have a number of “wings” within Judaism that coexist together. You will always find some common ground with certain Catholic thinkers and theologians. The Catholic Church has had a deplorable history of anti-Jewish repression and persecution for which it should be held responsible. Vatican II, however, turned the Church around dramatically, and its new guidelines of relationships with Jews present an entirely different picture. I think it will take time for this to resonate throughout the Catholic Church, but changes within the Church can often be quite dramatic because of its highly organized hierarchy. I see great opportunities there for understanding.

In my own lifetime I have been puzzled by the rapidity of the change. In 1951, when I first started out as a young rabbi in Trenton, New Jersey, I invited a Catholic priest whose church was on the same street as my synagogue to attend some function. He apologized that he could not accept because of his bishop’s ruling that he and other Catholics were not permitted to attend. Yet just a few months ago I was invited by one of the leading Catholic churches here in Washington to come to them and help conduct a Passover Day service as authentic as possible for their congregation, and they bent over backwards to avoid anything that would possibly be offensive or make it difficult for Jews to participate.

Since then we have had numerous dialogues. I’ve been part of a Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the greater Washington, D.C. area that has been going on for some 20 years. I can see a great many possibilities for further development of ever greater understanding, even intimacy between Catholics and Jews. Absolutely, there is within Catholicism a wider spectrum of opinion than among any other Christian denomination. The Catholic Church is ingenious to allow these different streams within Catholicism to coexist.

Is there a resurgence of religion occurring in the Bible Belt, and do you see it as a political threat to American minority groups like the Jews?

Many people believe in a myth about the resurgence of evangelical Christianity; according to their myth, any resurgence spells intolerance. It suggests to them an aggressive conversionist program and the inundation of the public square with Christian symbols and Christian practices, the introduction of prayer in the public school, and so on. All of those things inhabit the minds of a number of Jews who don’t want to be Christianized in a nation that is certainly not officially Christian or Jewish or Muslim, but is a secular state—a pluralist democracy.

In my own contact with evangelicals I discovered that they are a highly fragmented group. Unlike the Catholic Church, where a number of distinctive streams are somehow coordinated, led centrally, the evangelical “community” is highly individualistic. Every pastor is in a way a prince in his own domain and enjoys total autonomy as far as the rest of his denomination is concerned.

What I have found is that the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in this country is not a unique phenomenon. It is matched by a comparable resurgence certainly within the Jewish faith. The common element is a rejection, finally, of the excesses of modernism and secularism. I think the 1960s were a great shock that came to all of us when a supposedly “liberated” generation immediately became captive to scourges far worse than any kind of former oppression could have been—the drug culture, a so-called new morality which has had a devastating effect upon family life, and a soaring crime rate. Obviously many of the problems I am referring to also have their sources in social and economic conditions. But evangelicals were among the first to sound the alarm and say that this is a moral problem, too. I agree, as a Jew.

The point was reached when evangelicals as well as Jewish leaders felt, “now we must respond to this, we must return to the so-called ‘old morality’ because it is the morality.” It is unchangingly valid, as valid today as it was 200 years ago. In this post-modern reaction, people who were sort of floating in no-man’s-land were seeking something to hold onto, and they thought that religion might be the ground on which they could finally take their stand. That is one of the major reasons for the success of the evangelicals, because instead of caving-in to the modernists and the secularists they said, “no, we are going back to values which cannot be abandoned without catastrophic consequences.”

Now, Jerry Falwell was highly criticized for many of his political positions, but I think he talks about the things that really concern people. I don’t go along with some of his prescriptions for social and political reforms, but I must say I respect him highly as a authentic Christian voice who has put Christian morality in the center of his preaching and teaching.

Christian morality, as far as I am concerned, is very acceptable to me. It’s my morality, specifically grounded, and that is what I see in both Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Robertson tends to be more eschatological than Falwell, but I would say that both become kinsmen of mine when they speak in biblical terms. The Bible resonates in their thinking, but if they were exactly to my liking they would be Jews. They are Christians, so I recognize there’s a difference. But we can understand each other.

What significance do you see in evangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell expressing pro-Israel sentiment?

There has been a long tradition among evangelicals to look toward Israel not merely in its antiquity, but also toward its future. This was a discovery which surprised me, for at one time among Christians—mainstream Protestant churches and the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II—you could sense they were wondering, “what are these Jews still doing around here? After all, the fulfillment of the Messianic expectation has already taken place: Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God. Why are the Jews holding out? And isn’t Judaism obsolete?” That was the thinking characteristic until the early part of this century, and you can trace it back all the way to the New Testament. Only in the twentieth century, shortly after World War II, did there come a tremendous change.

There were a few rare souls among evangelical Christians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who really hoped for an imminent Second Coming and felt there would not be a Second Coming without the restoration of the Jews as a people in their own land. These Christian pre-Zionists were isolated voices. Some of them actually went to Palestine in the days when it was a terribly risky venture to visit this malaria-invested dry land. They looked around and wondered, could the Jews settle here, colonize this land? And they were willing to help.

Now that was, you might say, the affair of the individual Zionist Christian dreamers, nearly all of them evangelical. But this changed with the response to the Holocaust and to the dreadful catastrophe of World War II, which shook the faith in progress and the confidence of modernists.

As a result of that, there was a sudden and profound flair-up of what’s called the eschatological theme of Christianity, having to do with the last days before the end of history. This is an aspect of theology that is enormously fascinating for evangelicals, more than for any other Christians. In their timetable of both catastrophe and salvation, the Jews will play a central role in the scenario.

This scenario of salvation, I believe, was also kindled by the dread inspired by the nuclear age. The destruction of the whole world and civilization for the first time became a tangible reality, and therefore the eschatological expectation of world destruction and restoration suddenly became real politics. And then when the state of Israel was declared in 1948, immediately after World War II, it tremendously encouraged the hopes and expectations of the future return, felt most of all by the evangelicals. We in turn, as Jews, suddenly discovered that we had certain affinities and kinship with a group that we formerly had almost no contact with.

What do you see as the notable links between Protestant America, the evangelicals in particular, and the Hebrews of the Old Testament?

That is a point both of understanding and misunderstanding. One of the misconceptions that Christians have is that the Jews of today are the Hebrews of the Old Testament, and so Christians wrongly expect Jews of today to be the spitting image of Biblical characters. They forget that Judaism has changed in the last 2000 years, every bit as much as modern Christianity is a far cry from the early circle of apostles who surrounded Jesus at the cradle of Christianity in antiquity.

I think that there is a good deal of religious understanding possible between evangelicals and Jews. They, as well as we, find the Bible to be the bedrock of our faith tradition. They, as well as we, stress the Bible in our preaching and teaching. I wish Jews would stress it more. Someone once facetiously wrote that Jews wrote the Bishop, and the evangelicals are studying it.

There are certain traits that we share, such as the autonomy of each congregation. It is something Jewish when leaders follow the consensus of the congregation. We also have a certain common attitude in that we believe we have direct access to God without benefit of clergy. Evangelicals, if anything, will pray on many occasions that we might consider inappropriate. However, the evangelical lay person who prays stands directly before God, so to speak—exactly as the Jew does.

Evangelical Christians are trying as much as they can to apply biblical standards of morality to current conditions—tithing, the law of charity, the obligation of giving one-tenth of your income to the poor, the needy. In some respects, the application of the Bible’s laws to our own moral conduct is too rigid. In Judaism we have a history of 2000 years of interpretation, something we have done to make the Bible more flexible. Evangelical Christianity often. lacks that flexibility.

For example, many evangelical Christians condemn homosexuality with a certain harshness, because according to the Bible, homosexuals were liable to the death penalty. Jews have never applied that penalty in modern or historical times because interpretation has enabled us to understand the law in such a way as to obviate the necessity of its implementation. Judaism would be much more liberal in the area of sexuality.

With regard to the social problems of our time, the economic life of our time, most Jews today would say that the Bible, understood literally, is hardly directly applicable, or would be in many ways irrelevant. But if you are able to draw from the Bible certain central principles, and then by way of interpretation take the Bible as a foundation and build upon it a whole structure of interpretation that brings the Bible up to date, you can make the Bible relevant to our times. Whereas the direct and rigid application of the Bible as it was written would be terribly destructive from our point of view.

In a fall 1987 article in Policy Review, you described those in the Bible Belt as “naive” and “primitive” in their religious self-expression. How is that so, and has democratic debate changed them?

I would not characterize evangelicals as primitive. I say there are primitives among them. For example, some of the electronic church is appalling, and of course a number of its chief characters have been exposed as frauds. It takes a lot of naïveté and maybe a certain primitivism to listen and respect these characters who mislead and manipulate the public.

Those are the exceptions, though. I recognize essential sincerity in the prayerful life of evangelicals; I recognize high intelligence among some of their leading theologians today. They are no longer by any judgment the primitive baboons that H.L. Mencken described. The Bible Belt people, in my opinion, are as intelligent and concerned and civilized—perhaps more so—than any other segment of the population in America. Furthermore, I think all of us harbor a degree of naïveté, especially when it comes to religion. To saddle one religious group with such a label is unfair.

In that same article, you defended the evangelical community by referring to Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that in America religion serves as a moral anchor for democracy. Could you elaborate upon that idea?

Here’s where I differ in terms of strategy with some of my evangelical friends. Evangelicals believe, as I do, that religion is essential to a wholesome society, to a free America. But some of my Christian friends would like to give religion more of an official standing: they’d be happy to place crosses on some public building, crucifixes in market places, and Christian prayers in the public schools. I believe that when these things are done by the government, the gestures are superficial and don’t really amount to very much influence.

The true religious influence of Christianity and Judaism is in the lives of the people. Abraham Lincoln was not known to subscribe to formal religion. I don’t believe he ever belonged to any particular denomination, but his mind was saturated with the Bible and with prayers which he absorbed from his community. His thinking was shaped by a society of family life in which biblical moral standards were highly regarded. His whole life resonated those standards, and he acted as a person in light of these beliefs. That, to my mind, is the really significant impact that religion has, and that is what Tocqueville meant.

When he visited our early pioneering society in the 1830s and ’40s, he found that in the various pioneer villages and towns, ones with very few institutional safeguards, people were acting in terms of a religious heritage which was in their hearts and minds. There was a kind of consensus as to what is right and what is wrong, the most important element that religion contributes. When that consensus goes, thus goes your Supreme Court, your Congress, your president, and anything else aimed to help. This is the foundation of our whole democracy. Furthermore, a political system in which the people can do what they want has to limit what the people may do if a majority so decides it. A democratic people needs inner, restraint.

Yet Tocqueville also warned against the evil impulses or possible wrong impulses of religion getting tied up in the governing process. Do you see the influence of groups like the Moral Majority as a threat to liberty?

I think that Falwell has very wisely withdrawn from exerting political influence. Nevertheless, Tocqueville’s message is one we ought to get across to my evangelical brethren. When religion becomes a political instrument, then it is as oppressive and tyrannical as any of the political absurdities that have occurred in our time.

America must never forget its lesson that this nation arose in protest of state churches which persecuted minorities and dissenters, and we knowingly and willingly established a constitution and a nation in which church and state were to be separated.

Is there anything in the backgrounds of evangelicals that has encouraged anti-Semitism and segregationalist racism in the past, and do these factors still persist?

I don’t want to single out evangelicals as advocates of segregationist racialism; that’s an unfair charge. There is no evidence that white American Catholics, or Methodists, or Presbyterians were any less racists, let us say in 1880 or 1890, than the evangelicals.

Jerry Falwell came to the realization that racism was an evil, and publicly apologized for his past sins. I admire that, for the practice of repentance is one of the most beautiful things there is in both Christianity and Judaism. We recognize that a person can change his attitudes and his character. We have a place for repentance. The chief holiday in the Jewish calendar is the Day of Atonement, the day of repentance.

But Christians, too, are very much aware of the need to purge themselves of guilt and of sin. When Jerry Falwell came to the realization that racism had infected him, I think he very courageously confessed to that, repented it, and in my opinion, set an example that many of us should follow. There are a lot of Christians agonizing over the racism of the last century and of the period of slavery in America, a terrible blemish upon the whole record of our nation.

The impression that evangelical Christians are more anti-Semitic than others is a mistake. The assumption is probably based upon a greater activist role of evangelicals in missionary work, as they targeted the Jews more than other groups for purposes of conversion. While Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians would quietly do their missionary work among Jews, evangelicals would stand on public corners or go into Jewish neighborhoods, would distribute their literature door to door, trying to engage Jews in conversionist discussions and programs.

Christian methods of missionary work among Jews have been, to say the least, at times obnoxious, but that does not make them anti-Semitic. Although the impression is inevitable that if somebody wants to convert me, he obviously sees something wrong with what I am now, that is not anti-Semitism. I think what you find is that evangelical Christians are more overt, more public, in their belief that Jews should eventually embrace the faith of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament and of the old Covenant.

Some would argue that organized religion is not to be trusted in maintaining the morality of its adherents, in light of such historical examples as the frequent collaboration between the Nazis and elements of both the Catholic and Protestant churches. Based upon this, are Jews right to be scared of Bible-believing Christians?

I think that there is no doubt in the minds of Jews as well as Christians, that European Christians in general, including the Catholic Church, failed dramatically and tragically to offer the proper resistance to Nazi barbarism. It’s a colossal failure for which the Christian churches must repent. I think they are paying a high price, having lost enormous ground in Europe. Christian church attendance is the lowest anywhere in the world in Europe. Four, and even as low as 3 percent of the population go to churches in Scandinavia. A little higher number, maybe 4 or 5 percent, attend in Germany. Compare this to the 40 and 50 percent of the American people going more or less regularly.

Yes, I think that Christianity has to come clean, and there are some very important Christian thinkers, here in America especially, who have taken the lead. Yet I do not believe that Christianity in America would sink to that level which Christianity in Europe reached. I think Christianity in America is much healthier than Christianity in Europe. I think American Christians are aware and would be far more resistant to any kind of American Nazi tyranny if it were ever to become a danger.

The difference between Europe and America is that, by and large, American Christians are much freer and assertive as lay people. They have a much more important voice, both in the Catholic Church and, of course, in the Protestant churches. There is prominent lay leadership in America.

That was not true of the church in Europe. The clergy and the hierarchy dominated it, and they were so tied up with the state that they became increasingly subservient to it. Even now the salaries of the clergy in most European countries are paid by the state. The opposite is true in America, both of salaries and general subservience.

A number of Jews have the feeling that evangelical Christians want to monopolize the public square, that they would want to impose censorship, purging the libraries of books they disapprove of, remove films and forbid their screening if they are labeled “obscene.” I think there are certain tendencies of this nature among certain radical evangelical Christians, but on the other hand, it is the democratic right of any group of people to advocate the removal of books or the suppression of certain films. The majority of people have the final say as to whether or not it will be done. The Supreme Court also has its say.

How do you view the recent Supreme Court decision reinforcing the separation of church and state, specifically concerning school prayer and Christmas creches?

I grew up in a country, Austria, in which religion was taught in public schools, and it was taught badly. This was a disservice to the cause of religion. I have yet to be shown that religion taught in the public school would have any serious positive effect. I believe in schools that are from top to bottom guided by a religious community, by a consensus as to what should be done and how prayers should be said, a school system that is supported by parents who support that faith and its expression.

In a public school, on the other hand, you have many parents who are uninterested, who take no part whatsoever in the religious exercises, whatever they may be, and you probably have a majority of teachers who couldn’t care less about prayer, for to them prayer is not a personal habit. As one who’s spent a lifetime as a clergyman, I find it very difficult to make religion meaningful to my lay people, and I’ve brought a lifetime of experience and training to it. I cannot believe that a teacher who has a million other things on his mind is going to make a serious attempt to give a spiritual quality to that moment of mechanized prayer recitation.

Which is a greater problem for Jews, secular anti-Semitism or anti-Semitism on the part of Christians?

Anti-Semitism amongst Christians still exists, I’m afraid, and this is a problem that only Christians can resolve; Jews can’t resolve it. The New Testament is a highly polemical collection of literature, expressing a struggle within the Jewish community for the first two centuries, where there was mutual abuse in this struggle for dominance. This sectarian conflict led to very sharp, hostile statements.

It so happens that the people arguing in the New Testament were virtually all Jews. But when the antagonists of the early Christian sects were the recipients of harsh criticism, it was understood that the antagonists were the Jews. What was forgotten was that the followers of Jesus were also Jews. Now there is no doubt that you will find in the New Testament some very sharply critical, hostile statements which identify the enemies of Jesus with the devil, and by implication, the Jews as the children of the devil.

Yet there are also some very positive statements in the New Testament which affirm the special role of the Jewish people, In the letter from Paul to the Romans, chapters 10-13 in large measure deal with the special role of the Jewish people; these chapters provide ample ground not only for Christians, but for a mutually respectful relationship between Jews and Christians.

Thus, if Christians ever become anti-Semitic, there is within Christianity and the New Testament an overwhelming veto on anti-Semitism. This is not the case in secularism. When secular anti-Semites develop a movement against Jews, there is nothing within their own ideology to stop it, which makes it much more of a danger.

Can you describe the dynamics of secular anti-Semitism?

Take the Communist rulers of the Soviet Union for 70 years, who denounced the “cosmopolitan” Jewish community worldwide and preached that the Jews were the original capitalists, and therefore enemies of the state. On secular grounds Jews were charged with being the ultimate enemies of the Communist state. You will find the most virulent anti-Semitic statements in Karl Marx’s writings, where he identifies the Jews with capitalist entrepreneurs. As a matter of fact, Jewish life favors market society.

Or take the Nazis, for whom humanity was divided racially into arbitrarily defined variants. Non-Aryans, specifically Semites and most specifically Jews, were an alien element that had to be removed no matter what. So from the Nazi point of view—a strictly secular ideology—it was self-evident that the Aryan race was the superior race, and that any other racial element would therefore be poison in the body politic, to be eliminated.

One of the problems in American society which accounts for unrest and antagonism between certain groups, minority groups in particular, is the feeling of some that they are being disadvantaged because other groups have an excessive amount of money, power, and influence. You find the black militants in their anti-Semitic outbursts have pointed to Jews as having an excessive amount of power and economic influence in America. The charge is baseless, but that does not make it any less dangerous.

On the one hand this comes out of despair; secondly, out of a vicious demagoguery which doesn’t care about truth, which only wants to inflame its own constituency so that it will become more militant, more angry. You cannot get anywhere unless you first make them angry. What we learned from the Nazis and the Bolsheviks is that you first have to create a deep hatred against something, then you can move the masses and lead them where you want to lead them. Some of these black militants have learned that technique and are applying it very skillfully.

Do you think the clergy has had a profound influence on America, or has theology been “Americanized?”

There has been interaction both ways. The democratic political system of America no doubt had a profound influence on the course of church history in America. But the opposite is also true. The teaching of particular principles of biblical morality and society, the view as to how society should operate, and a kind of republican strain within the biblical tradition, critical of the monarchy, all played a very important role in the development of America’s constitutional system. Scholarship has traced that influence and made an absolutely convincing case that religion is at the cradle of the American revolution.

Do you think America today is a Christian, Judeo-Christian, or secular nation?

One of the reasons why Jews and Christians are moving closer to each other is that we recognize the great problem is not our religious difference, but religious indifference. A secular America would be a much more dangerous place in which to live than a country that still is nourished by religious tradition, Christian as well as Jewish. Secularism is gaining ground because it has more access to the media, and because our society is such that influence can be easily brought to bear upon a highly mobile society.

In order to be influenced and guided by their traditions, people need to have a certain stable environment—family, neighborhood, and church. When the average American moves every couple of years to a new neighborhood outside the range of the people and the influences that have shaped him, he may come to think, “I can do without them. I can do without my parents, my family, my former friends. I’m a new type of person, I live in a new world.” The most morally unstable person, as general folklore understands it, is the travelling salesman, because nobody he knows is watching him. In a mobile society, you get people today who cut loose from the moral standards with which they were reared. Moral standards need to be re-affirmed, strengthened, re-worked by a number of influences around them. I see secularism on the rise, unless churches and synagogues become more skillful in following their members or in reaching out into the unaffiliated secularized society which today is enormous.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.

MENU