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Israel and the Body of Christ - A Jewish Take on the Incarnation

BY Father Richard John Neuhaus

Jan 26-Feb. 1, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/26/97 at 2:00 PM

 

WITHOUT DOUBT, one of the most important Jewish theologians of our time is Michael Wyschogrod, now teaching at the University of Houston.At a theological conference in Germany, where he encountered considerable hostility from some Christian theologians, he read his paper A Jewish Perspective on Incarnation.The great disagreement between Jews and Christians, said Wyschogrod, is over the Christian claim that Jesus is God.Many Jews, following Maimonides, say that claim is decisively precluded because God is pure spirit and cannot be incarnate in space and time.Wyschogrod disagrees.In the Hebrew Scriptures there is no doubt that God “dwells” in Jerusalem in a way that he does not dwell in Berlin; as he dwells also in his elect, albeit sinful, people, and in the Temple of Solomon.

“Judaism is therefore incarnational if by this term we mean the notion that God enters the world of humanity, that he appears at certain places and dwells in them which thereby become holy.Christianity somewhat concretized this tendency, pushing it toward a specific incarnation so that the Jewish tendency toward spatiality takes on a corporeal form.While in Judaism the dialectic between transcendence and immanence is always kept alive rather sharply, in Christianity the aspect of immanence receives perhaps somewhat stronger expression even though it must be remembered that trinitarian thinking complements the incarnate son with a transcendent father.In any case, it must be emphasized that the Jewish objection to an incarnational theology cannot be based on a priori grounds, as if something in the nature of the Jewish concept of God made his appearance in the form of humanity a rational impossibility. Very often, Jewish opposition to the incarnation is based on just such grounds without realization of the implications of such a posture.If we can determine a priori that God could not appear in the form of a man or, to put it in more Docetistic terms, that there could not be a being who is both fully God and fully human, then we are substituting a philosophical scheme for the sovereignty of God.No biblically oriented, responsible Jewish theology can accept such a substitution of an ontological structure for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob whose actions humanity cannot predict and whose actions are not subject to an overreaching logical necessity to which they must conform.It is for this reason that I consider clarification of the reason for Jewish opposition to the incarnation so important.”

Wyschogrod is taken with the story, which may or may not be apocryphal, that when Pope John XXIII saw the pictures of bulldozers pushing Jewish corpses into mass graves at the newly liberated Nazi murder camps, he exclaimed: “There is the body of Christ.” Wyschogrod urges Christians and Jews to reflect on the possible implications: “Somehow, in some way which is perhaps still not altogether clear, the Church decided that in Jesus there was God, more so than in other people who are also created in God's image.This man, this Jew, this servant, this despised, crucified Jew, was not just human but in him could be detected the presence of God.The Church held fast to this belief because it held fast to this Jew, to his flesh and not only to his spirit, to his Jewish flesh on the cross, to a flesh in which God was present, incarnated, penetrating the world of humanity, becoming human.The Church found God in this Jewish flesh.Perhaps this was possible because God is in all Jewish flesh, because it is the flesh of the covenant, the flesh of a people to whom God has attached himself, by whose name he is known in the world as the God of Israel.Perhaps for some mysterious reason, the Church, the gathering of Gentiles drawn to the God of Israel, could not see this incarnation in the Jewish people but could see it in this one Jew who stood, without the Church realizing it, for his people. Perhaps the crucifixion of Jesus can only be understood in the context of the crucifixion of the people of Israel, whose physical presence challenges those who hate God because in this people they see the God they hate.Perhaps the bond between Jesus and his people is much closer than has been thought.”

Wyschogrod is not certain that the word “incarnation” is the best way to describe God's relation to the Jewish people, but he is sure of the scriptural witness that God dwells in the Tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, and in the Holy Land.More important, more holy, than these is the people. “The holiness of the land of Israel is not equal to that of the people of Israel who enter it as a holy people and who leave it as such.God's covenant is with the people and when the Temple is destroyed, the rabbis tell us, God goes into exile together with his people. And now, wherever a congregation gathers, wherever there are Jews, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) gathers.Is this incarnation in a people? It is a movement in that direction.It is not identical with Christian incarnation.It is a less concentrated incarnation, an incarnation into a people spread out in time and place, with its saints and sinners, its moments of obedience and disobedience.But I do think that he who touches this people, touches God, and perhaps not altogether symbolically.”

Father Neuhaus is editor of First Things.

Reprinted with the kind permission of First Things.

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