Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Bear baiting and the Christian problem

In which, fed up with the Bear's continued incessant baiting, Yours Truly inexplicably finally takes the bait, while fully expecting a paw blow to the side of the head.

Moved by the holiday spirit, the redundantly-named Dov Bear has lately stepped up his crusade (so to speak) against Christianity, or, more precisely, against those Jews, generally of a conservative bent, who have expressed their sympathy with religious Christians and with the public celebration of Christmas in America.

It's hard to formulate a concise response to his disorganized series of ramblings from this past week, so I'll try to pick out his main points and respond to them directly. (Does he have a real job? Some of us do!)

Before I begin: Naturally, I have no sympathy with some of the loonier sentiments DB has mocked. Unlike Charles Krauthammer, I do not feel "enlarged" by the public celebration of Christmas. Unlike Dennis Prager, I feel no poorer in the absence of garish Christmas displays (and I expect many serious Christians would agree).

But back to our double-monikered ursine. As far as I can tell, his arguments, some religious and some political, boil down to these:

One at a time, now.

"I object to Christianity because it is false."

No argument here. Christianity is false and heretical. It is incompatible with Judaism - by definition; otherwise, Christians would still be Jews. However, it is no more false or heretical than many other popular systems of belief, from Hinduism to Objectivism to secular humanism. Arguably, it is less false than most of them, as it is substantially rooted in Jewish sources. One might argue that this makes it more dangerous to Jews, but not more false.

Along the same lines, Islam and Baha'i and Buddhism and (lehavdil?) Reform Judaism and certain factions of Chabad are all arguably less heretical than Christianity, but are still false and heretical from a halachic standpoint. That leaves us as maybe a million - two, to be very generous - mitzvah-observant Jews out of a world of six-plus billion. That's a lot of falsehood to object to. I've got other things to do.

"At bottom it is idol worship."

This is far from clear-cut, both philosophically and halachically. Idol worship is the worship of powers other than God, classically meaning the heavenly bodies, animals, statues or humans, or the worship of multiple gods. Whether Christianity is idol worship depends on one's understanding of Christianity.

Any Christian today, certainly in the West, will profess to be a monotheist, worshiping the same God who (they believe) gave the Israelites the Torah at Sinai. So who was Jesus? If he was another god, that's clearly idolatry. If he was merely the one God's representative on earth, he might not be much different from other false prophets. If he was god's human son and the messiah, that may be a foolish belief and it's clearly heresy to Jews, but it's not so clear that it's idolatry. Three-is-one, they say - but is God really three or really one? That may depend on the subtleties of different varieties of Christian theology.

On the halachic side, I'm certainly no expert, but there is a substantial halachic tradition which does not view modern Christianity as idolatry. Rav JB Soloveichik zt"l apparently subscribed to this view, for example. ("Evidently he followed the majority of Hakhmei Ashkenaz -- from Meiri to Rabeinu Tam to Rama to Shakh to Be'er Hagolah to Seridei Aish -- in considering contemporary Christianity not to be identical to classical avodah zarah.")

Besides - what if it is? I'm not aware of any religious injunction against political alliances with idolaters. They've been common throughout our history, from Abraham on.

"For 2000 years Christians and Christian governments have been our enemy."

Make that, "Some Christians and Christian governments have been our enemy." Others have been our friends, or at least allies, from Oliver Cromwell to Franz Josef.

But so what? You have no obligation to forgive Christians for centuries of persecution. But why slander all of today's Christians with the sins of their forebears? (Don't we object furiously when Christians do that to us?)

Christians are a diverse community. Some of them hate us. Some of them "love" us so much they want us to be just like them (how sweet!). Some of them, however, respect us for who we are and are proud to ally themselves to us, without imposing their beliefs on us. We have a right, and indeed a responsibility, to be skeptical towards them, but equally we have a moral obligation to be open to cooperation with those who are sincerely respectful of us. That doesn't mean we need to go out with them for drinks or have them over for bridge.

Certainly, as perhaps the world's smallest religious minority, we have a pragmatic need to seek out allies wherever we can find them. Diplomatic beggars can't be choosers. Political cooperation is not (primarily) about moral endorsement. It is about the leveraging of power and influence to promote our self-interests. Where Jews have potential allies, we must nurture those relationships. We can't afford not to. Equally, we must make the limits of our cooperation clear.

"The choice is Christianity or Freedom. And smart Jews choose freedom every time."

Repeating this doesn't make it so. Western Europe today is virtually free of Christianity; the state churches are dying and religious belief is dwindling. That has not made it a hospitable place for Jews.

Historically, Jews have not necessarily fared well in overly free societies. The Emancipation kicked off one of the greatest waves of assimilation in Jewish history. This "freedom - good, Christianity - bad" mantra is simplistic and unsupported by facts.

This is not to suggest that oppression is good for the Jews; far from it. But the Jewish people today has never been more free of political oppression, yet we continue to dwindle in numbers. This is primarily our own fault, not that of atheists or Christians.

Ultimately, though, the annual December issues that obsess Americans are insignificant. Whether or not City Hall sports a nativity scene, whether or not the school choir sings the Lord's Prayer (generations of Jewish kids survived this without harm), America will not become a theocracy in any conceivable scenario. Its civic religion is the Constitution, and its political and cultural diversity virtually guarantees the continued protection of civil liberties by government. And, frankly, you can't protect your son from a nativity scene on a billboard or a private lawn any more than you can from the one in the city park. Attempts, mainly by Jews, to impose public secularism on a largely religious society can only yield resentment.

Threats to Jewish continuity are far more abundant on university campuses and television screens than in the halls of government. In today's America, freedom arguably poses greater threats to Jews than Christianity does.

I've failed to bite at much of the bear's bait, if only for lack of time. There is much more worth responding to, including his distortions of Jewish doctrines, American constitutional principles and the clear intent of the very columnists he's cited. Some other time, perhaps.


DovBear said...

You didn't do a bad job.

From what I can tell, you agree with me that things should stay the way they are in America. I'm worried the Christians will muck it up; you're worried the Liberals will do it.

I trust liberals. You trust christians.

I don't mean to simplify, but I think that's it.

Thanks for joining me in pointing out that Prager and Krauthhammer expressed idiotic sentiments.

Skeptic said...

"Yours Truly inexplicably..."

Inexplicably? You do it for the free hits. That's obvious.

Zman Biur said...


So... it's okay to come out now? You've put your claws away?

Your summary is reasonably on target. Like I said, I don't think the challenges facing American Jews are primarily the fault of the Christians or the liberals. I don't think there's much chance of America becoming a Christian theocracy, and I also don't think religion should be banished from the public square, especially in so intensely religious a society. And I don't think American Jews should be fighting to sanitize the public realm of Christianity, either. That's not healthy.

To exaggerate a bit, most Americans today love Jews. They practically can't say Merry Christmas without Happy Hannukah, even weeks after Hannukah is over.

Unfortunately, and unlike the more "balanced" situation a few decades ago, most antisemitism today is concentrated in constituencies of the Democratic Party. This is not the party's fault, but it is a fact. It makes more sense for Jews to be allied with those who support us, rather than those who despise us - no?

"I trust liberals. You trust christians."

I'm not sure I trust either. I do think we have more political interests in common more of the time with the Christians than with the liberals. But we shouldn't avoid working with the liberals when it serves our interests, either. Why not work with the ACLU on matters of religious liberty, for example? That doesn't mean we have to agree with them on everything.

Regarding the Mesora article, the precise URL is: http://www.mesora.org/religionscorrect.html

What a wacky site! I'm not sure how seriously I take anything I find on it.

Without going into the details now, though, I do have some problems with that essay. It's irrelevant, though; I haven't said we should learn theology from Christians. Just let them worship as they desire, and work with them politically where appropriate. Accord them respect so we can win theirs. We have our Torah, and they have... well, whatever it is they have... it doesn't really matter to me.



But wrong. If I was in it for the hits, I would have engaged DovBear in combat long ago. He's certainly given me plenty of opportunities.

DovBear said...



And seriously, how much do you love my anti Christmas, pro Jewish blogging?