Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

My Debt to Jewish Thinkers

In previous posts, I have spelled out some of my major dialogue partners among liberal theologians and among conservative evangelicals.  But I have other influences, other dialogue partners, and some Jewish thinkers (theologians, philosophers, political theorists) are extremely important.  Christianity has a different relationship with Judaism than with any other faith. Judaism is both our mother and older sister. We began as a messianic movement among 1st C. Jews–one far more open to Gentile inclusion.  But soon we became a mostly Gentile religion and there was what James D. G. Dunn calls the “parting of the ways” between synagogue and church.  With the destruction of the temple, the Sadducee movement was finished.  With the final destruction of Jerusalem after Bar Kochba’s revolt, the Zealot movement, and violent nationalist strains of Judaism disappeared.  The Pharisee movement became normative, rabbinic Judaism in the diaspora.  But with the “parting of the ways,” and soon with Christian use of imperial power to persecute Jews, Christians lost sight of the Jewish nature of our faith–and much that developed since can only be considered pagan.   Christian pastors and theologians need Jewish dialogue partners–perhaps more than they need us.

People will rightly notice the absence of the major Jewish “Holocaust Theologians”: Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, Irving Greenberg. I have, of course, learned things from these worthies. But I have become convinced by “post-Holocaust Jewish theologians” such as Ellis and Goldberg, listed below, that the WAY Wiesel & Co. have placed the Shoah at the center of Jewish life has distorted the central moral dimensions of Judaism and led to uncritical support of everything the modern State of Israel does.  Some even contend that the gradual movement of many mainstream U.S. Jewish institutions from a center-left political stance to a center-right, or even neo-con, stance can be traced to these Holocaust theologians.  I do not know. And I certainly think Wiesel, Greenberg, and Rubenstein have written important works that both Jews and Christians need to engage. But MY thought has been more shaped by those Jewish thinkers listed below.

  • Martin Buber (1878-1965). I have been deeply influenced by Buber’s “communal existentialism,” especially his “I-Thou” dialogic principle. But I also have learned to appreciate Hasidism from Buber–and I confess that previous to reading some of Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, I thought of the Hasidics as simply “Jewish fundamentalists” with little to teach modern people. Now, I see them as one effort to avoid assimilation–and contemporary Christians need desperately to find ways to avoid assimilation into the wider cultures of the world.  If Zionism has any redeeming qualities, it would have to be something like Buber’s “cultural Zionism” in which he worked from the beginning for Arab and Jew to share the Land of Promise.  Buber’s many writings can be found here.
  •  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the great “public intellectuals” of the 20th C.  Born (in Warsaw, Poland) into a family in which both parents were descended from a long line of Orthodox rabbis, Heschel’s initial education was in a traditional Yeshiva, and was “ordained” a rabbi with an orthodox smicha. But Heschel felt himself compelled to interpret Judaism to the modern world and so earned a second ordination at a Reform seminary in Berlin while simultaneously earning a Ph.D. in philosophy and comparative religion at the University of Berlin.  A Holocaust refugee (almost all the rest of Heschel’s family perished in the death camps), Heschel came to the U.S. and taught first at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnatti ( a Reform school) before finding a better “fit” at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City (a Conservative institution where one could be both a historical critic and take halakah seriously).  At JTS, Heschel interacted with several Christian scholars at nearby Union Theological Seminary. He also became deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement–once telling a group of Rabbis that if they wanted to hear the authentic voice of the Hebrew prophets in America, today, they would listen to Martin Luther King, Jr!   It was Heschel’s two-volume work, The Prophets, which first blew me away. I still consult it today as one of the best interpretations to the biblical prophets available.  Heschel captures well how the Hebrew prophets were both drunk with God and completely OUTRAGED over injustice.  Heschel also taught me how to appreciate the Sabbath and the hallowing of time–whereas the Christianity I knew as a child taught that all Sabbath keeping was simply “legalism.” Like Buber, Heschel had a mystic view of God coupled with a profound compassion for all humanity.  Daughter Susanna Heschel is a professor of religious studies and a pioneering Jewish feminist.  Find many of Heschel’s works here.
  • Geza Vermes (born 22 June 1924) in Hungary.  Vermes and his parents were all baptized into the Catholic Church when he was seven, but whether that was social climbing assimilation on his parents’ part (common among Middle and Upper class European Jews of that era), or genuine conversion, I do not know.  At any rate, it did not save his parents from dying in the Holocaust.  Vermes became a Catholic priest and was one of the first scholars to see the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and he wrote the first translation into English.  Something in his discoveries led him to leave the Catholic Church and reclaim his Jewish identity.  He moved to Britain and eventually became the first Professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford, a post he retained until his retirement in 1981.  Vermes has also been at the forefront of contemporary Jewish reclaimations of Jesus, beginning with his groundbreaking Jesus the Jew in 1973.  I don’t always agree with him, of course (I am a Christian, after all), but I greatly appreciate Vermes’ reconstructions of the Judaism(s) of the NT era and his placing of Jesus within such a context.  Vermes’ books are here.
  • Michael Walzer (b. 1935), who teaches in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Princeton University, is one of the foremost political theorists in the U.S.  Walzer is a just war theorist and I am a convinced pacifist. Walzer has some blind spots concerning Israel and, initially (until they went overboard even in Walzer’s view), supported some of the Bush administration’s actions in the “war on terror.”  So, I obviously don’t just agree with all his views. But Walzer’s method of moral and political reasoning has greatly influenced me.  Some have noticed that I stand between MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout as a self-declared “democratic communitarian.” I learned that alternative stance from Walzer, especially in Thick and Thin: Moral Reasoning At Home and Abroad, The Company of Critics, and On Toleration.  I largely agree with his pluralistic account of “complex equality” in Spheres of Justice and share his commitment to a democratic socialism–in a nation without a viable democratic socialist party!  Walzer began his career as a rather assimilated Jew, but his work on particularist identity and universalist commitments led to his reclaiming increasingly more of his Jewish identity–something which first became very apparent in his Exodus and Revolution which showed how the revolutionary politics of the biblical exodus has influenced so many other “reiterations” of the narrative.  Now, Walzer is in the midst of editing a huge multi-volume work on The Jewish Political Tradition–a project that connects in spirit to my own identification with the radical free church democratic vision of the Levellers.  Walzer’s writings (through 2006) are found in his c.v. here.
  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow (b. 1933) is one of the leaders of the “Jewish Renewal Movement” in the U.S. which seeks to get beyond the way that U.S. Judaism has been divided into “denominations” (e.g., Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist) while losing ever more young people to assimilation or conversion.  Waskow also began as a fairly assimilated Jew who was a historian and political activist throughout the 1960s.  In the wake of the conservative backlash of the Nixon era, Waskow began to see that radical social reform took deep spiritual roots and began to forge institutions and practices of Jewish renewal (while also participating in interfaith work with Christians and Muslims). In 1995, this process led to Waskow’s rabbinic ordination with a beit din composed of one Orthodox rabbi with Hassidic roots, one Conservative rabbi, one Reform rabbi, and one Jewish feminist theologian.  Waskow has been working for peace between Israel and the Palestinians since 1969 and is a former board member of Rabbis for Human Rights. Currently, runs the Shalom Centre and is a leading voice connecting worship to peacemaking.  Waskow has influenced me mainly through his example–seeing that reconciliation with enemies or partnerships with alien traditions cannot take place through watering down one’s own particularism, but only through rediscovery and and deep transformation of one’s own tradition.  See some of his major works here.
  • Judith Plaskow of Manhattan College.  Her Standing Again at Sinai was my introduction to Jewish feminism.  Because of it, I resist versions of Christian feminism which try to blame everything patriarchal on the Hebrew Scriptures and, Marcion-like, see the New Testament as a repudiation of all that came before. (This Marcionite tendency is also prevalent among some forms of Christian pacifism and I resist THAT, too.) 
  • Rabbi Michael Lerner (b. 1943) is another former ’60s radical who combines spiritual depth and social passion.  Lerner, who has one Ph.D. in psychology and another in Jewish philosophy, studied under Heschel at JTS–but found the rest of his teachers disappointing.  He is the rabbi of Temple Beyt Tikkun in Berkely, CA, founder and editor of Tikkun magazine (a Jewish-inspired interfaith journal that is similar in political outlook to the Christian Sojourners), and founder of the Network of Spiritual Progressives which seeks to renew a spiritual Left in the U.S.  A strong defender of Israel’s right to exist, Lerner is also a strong defender of a Palestinian state.  He has worked to end the estrangement in the U.S. between African-Americans and Jews (once a firm coalition), working with Cornel West to uproot Jewish anti-black racism and African-American anti-Semitism.  Unlike those listed above, I have met R. Lerner more than once and I always learn much from him–but not usually about Judaism, per se, I have to say. His writings (in addition to articles in Tikkun) are found here.
  • Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (b. 1949) was one of the earliest women in America to be ordained a rabbi, finally becoming ordained in 1981.  She is a major peace and justice activist, serving on the boards of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Rabbis for Human Rights, and founding the Jewish-Muslim-Christian peace walks. She also is the founder and Exec. Director of Interfaith Inventions, a daycamp for children and youth.  A master storyteller (Haggadah) who uses theatre arts in social transformation, Rabbi Gottlieb is also a leader in the recovery of the Hispanic Jewish heritage than came to the “New World” during the expulsions from Spain by Isabella and Ferdinand and a student of Sephardic Jewish culture.  I met her first in 2002 at a meeting of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and got to know her better when she was a guest speaker at the 2006 meeting of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.  There, R. Gottlieb so impressed my youngest daughter, Miriam, that she wanted to become a rabbi! (Miriam was 6 at the time!)
  • Marc H. Ellis (b. 1952), directs the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, Waco, TX. Baylor is closely related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and this is the first Center for Jewish Studies at a confessionally Christian university–at least in the U.S.  Marc Ellis has been one of the strongest voices for Jewish-Palestinians reconciliation. Further, and more controversally, Ellis has contended in many books that the story of the Holocaust has been misused so that Jews see themselves as “eternal victims” and are unable to criticize an Israel that has power, even nuclear power.   Ellis helped me to see that the modern State of Israel has often functioned to warp normative Jewish thinking in a way analogous to the establishment of political power for Christians with the Constantinian settlement. (Ellis does NOT argue, as he has been accused, that Israel should cease to exist. One cannot turn back the clock without more bloodshed. He simply seeks to recover the moral center of Judaism that uncritical defense of a nation-state has warped.) Ellis has also been the Jewish theologian who interacts most with Christian liberation theologians.  Ellis’ many writings on Jewish and Christian topics are found here.
  • Update: As noted in the comments section, Jonathan Marlowe reminded me of another major dialogue partner:  Rabbi Michael Goldberg is another “nondenominational” rabbi. After receiving his ordination, he completed a Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union under one of my mentors, James Wm. McClendon, Jr.  R. Goldberg has become a major contributor to the “narrative theology” genre.  In his 1995 book, Why Should Jews Survive?, he echoes Marc Ellis’ contention that Holocaust-centered Judaism distorts the moral center of the faith.  In his Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight, Goldberg draws some contrasts between the Jewish “master story” (the Exodus and the giving of the Law at Sinai) and the Christian “master story” (Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection) which I cannot follow because he strips the Exodus from the Christian story and claims that the Christ event is a fundamental misinterpretation of the Exodus-Covenant.   This kind of interpretive disagreement may be irreconcilable–I cannot see how Goldberg could change his view without becoming a Christian. Read Goldberg’s books.
  • Michael Wyschogrod is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Houston and one of the first Jewish thinkers to attempt a systematic theology. He has been called a “Jewish Barthian,” a term which caused Barth himself some amusement. His books are listed here.
  • Rabbi Pinchas Lapide, who died in the late ’90s, was a German Orthodox rabbi and also a scholar of the historical Jesus and a participant in Jewish-Christian dialogue.   He argued that God really raised Jesus from the dead and he was contemptuous of so-called Christian theologians who attempted to demythologize Christ’s resurrection.  However, even though Lapide agreed that the resurrection was God’s stamp of approval on Christ’s message, he did not agree that Jesus was the promised Messiah! (So much for some kinds of apologetics!) Lapide also entered into dialogue with Jurgen Moltmann concerning Jewish monotheism and Christian Trinitarianism. Lapide also wrote a major interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, showing its many roots and parallels in rabbinic thought.  Yet, Lapide thought Jesus actually went beyond the rabbis in calling not just for good treatment of enemies, but for the love of enemies–this was the radically new element in Jesus’ thought! But, said R. Lapide, if this is true, then it is clear that from about the 3rd C. until today, more of Jesus’ physical brothers and sisters (i.e., Jews) had come close to loving enemies than Jesus’ spiritual brothers and sisters (i.e., Christians)! The truth of that observation is profoundly embarrassing.  R. Lapide’s writings are here.

September 6, 2007 - Posted by | heroes, Jews, theology


  1. I guess the Jewish theologian I have learned the most from is Michael Goldberg, although I disagree with the way he sometimes contrasts the Jewish and Christian ‘master stories.’

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | September 6, 2007

  2. I knew I would leave out someone important! Rabbi Goldberg is truly important–and so is Michael Wyschogrod! I’ll edit this list to include them both!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 6, 2007

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Michael! Interesting dialogue partners, indeed. I inspires me to actually consider reading some of their writings for myself.

    Comment by haitianministries | September 6, 2007

  4. I too have found Marc Ellis an interesting and hellpful read. I’ve talked to some Rabbi’s about him and find that he’s not well received in the Jewish community, but that may be due more to misunderstanding than anything.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | September 7, 2007

  5. Bob, you aren’t kidding about Marc Ellis not being “well received” by many in the Jewish community! Because he dares to criticize Israel so bluntly, he is often called a “self-hating Jew” and he has been banned from speaking at several Hillel Clubs at universities. Jews and Christians both have long records of “not receiving” our prophetic voices and internal critics well.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 7, 2007

  6. I share several Jewish dialogue partners with you: Heschel and Buber, of course, as well as Ellis. But I also have a few who aren’t on your list, that I think worthy of consideration:

    Burton L. Visotzky, a Conservative Jewish Rabbi teaching at (as of 1996, anyway) the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I’ve read some of his work in ethics (The Genesis of Ethics), which is quite interesting.

    Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, whose book The Dignity of Difference won the Grawemeyer Award for Religion a few years ago.

    Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He taught one of my teachers, Rabbi David Ariel-Joel. While most of his work is in Hebrew, there are a few English editions of his books. My favorite so far has been The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices, one of the best books I’ve read on the formation of the text of the Torah.

    Jon D. Levenson, who at least as of 1994 taught Jewish Sudies at Harvard Divinity School. His book Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence has challenged my views on theodicy.

    Comment by Sandalstraps | September 7, 2007

  7. Thanks, Chris. I saw Visotzky on Bill Moyers’ great PBS’ series, Genesis: A Living Conversation–Visotzky and Moyers were the only folks in every episode. I was impressed, but haven’t gotten around to reading any of his works, yet. BTW, folks, that series is well worth getting from a public library and showing in adult Sunday School classes with discussion afterwords!

    Sacks I’ve heard of, but haven’t read and the same is true of Levenson, I’m afraid. You are the first to bring Knohl to my attention. Thanks very much for these additional Jewish voices to consider!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 7, 2007

  8. Franz Rosenzweig and Immanuel Levinas might be of interest too.

    Comment by Kerry | September 7, 2007

  9. Hmm. Kerry, I tried to read both during philosophy classes and couldn’t get into either Rosenzweig or Levinas. Sorry.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 7, 2007

  10. I appreciate the term “communal existentialism” as applied to Buber. As I explained in my book, God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Teachings of Martin Buber, the most important thing in life is what happens between us

    Comment by Rabbi Dennis S. Ross | September 8, 2007

  11. Thanks for the kind words, Rabbi Ross. I made up the term “communal existentialism,” because I didn’t know how else to explain the plainly existential dimensions to Buber’s philosophy, but yet distinguish them from the individualism of the likes of Kierkegaard or Sartre, etc.

    And thanks for stopping by this lowly blog by an ignorant Baptist. 🙂

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 8, 2007

  12. Great list. I appreciate greatly your desire and ability to study Jewish scholars.

    One minor friendly note — Susannah Heschel was not ordained as a rabbi. see bio

    The Jewish Theological Seminary, where her father taught, did not ordain the first woman until 1985. The Reform movement has ordained women back in 1972, when she was considering her career. However, as you mention regarding A.J. Heschel, Susanna was not personally comfortable with the Reform movement’s lack of adherence to Halacha.

    Comment by Scott D | September 30, 2007

  13. […] Jewish friends on matters of concern to us both, I mentioned in my previous blog, Levellers, that my debts to Jewish thinkers is quite large.  I had hoped to write on some aspect of Jewish-Christian dialogue, this week.  […]

    Pingback by What Would Jesus Do? NOT Burn a Qu’ran! « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | September 9, 2010

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