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SIDIC Periodical XXXII - 1999/2
Eastern and Central Europe. Jewish and christian societies in transition (Pages 15-20)

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Judaism and the Future of Orthodoxy
Benevitch, Grigory



Bearing witness to one’s faith and one’s hope - a main means to overcoming the mutual prejudice which leads to distrust and enmity - is impossible without an attempt to understand the other. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain, in a 1997 paper on the problem of “the Other”, defined Judaism as a particularist monotheism which differs from both polytheism and universal monotheism.1 Unlike other monotheistic faiths Judaism does not force its belief in One God upon others. According to Sacks Jews are those obliged to bring the world the belief in One God Who may be worshipped in various ways. In its application of this Judaism extends the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lv 19:18) to requiring its members to love the stranger as oneself, as a Jew by blood (Lv 19:33,34). Judaism establishes this relationship to “the Other” as the leading force to usher in the Messianic era. While not desiring to impose its religion on others as a special form of worship, Judaism strives to spread among other nations an ethic of tolerance, pluralism, acceptance of religious differences, and love for one’s neighbor, whether Jewish or not. According to Dr. Sacks various forms of worship are tolerated provided that One God is worshipped. This provides a basis for believers of all religions to speak a common language, coexist peacefully and enrich each other with the values of their respective traditions. If Sacks’ observations are correct, today’s ecumenism may be said to be the spiritual child of Jewish ideals and thought. The Western ideology of today’s pluralistic society also appears to be a natural outflow of the ethics of Judaism.


One of the major problematic areas of Orthodox Christianity is its attitude toward ecumenism. In the past schisms within the Greek, Romanian, Bulgarian and Georgian Churches and in the separation of the Moscow Patriarchy from the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile, the issues resided in differing attitudes toward ecumenism. The Orthodox Church, perceived by Orthodox Christians as the One True Church, finds it difficult to accept the spiritual leadership of Judaism which traditionally Orthodox Christians have always perceived as generally opposed to Christianity. The question today is not one of conversion to Judaism but one of attitude in relation to the spirit and ideology of Judaism. When Judaism is perceived not as a religion but as a spiritual philosophy and ideological orientation, Orthodox Christians may accept Judaism’s spiritual ideology, or they may hate Judaism, reject its values and proclaim totalitarian Orthodoxy as the only defense against the domination of the world by Jewish ideology. To a large extent the future of Orthodox Christianity depends on how this attitude toward Judaism is resolved.

Judaism’s strongest argument against any kind of totalitarianism is the reality of Auschwitz. The argument is highly convincing when it states that there can be no alternative to the ideology and spirituality of Judaism, since any alternative - be it universal monotheism, polytheistic tribalism or even atheism - leads to Auschwitz or the Gulag. However, the choice which Orthodox Christianity must make does not lie between following the lead of Judaism or rejecting its values altogether. Perhaps it is alien for true Orthodoxy to choose. Perhaps it is possible to perceive the values proclaimed by Judaism in a manner which does not exclude them but absorbs and transfigures them. I believe this is the challenge Orthodox theology faces today. It is obvious that the Western world and civilization as a whole, after centuries of historical development, have attained a spiritual age which corresponds to the ethics of the Old Testament. Hence, Judaism has assumed the spiritual leadership of the entire civilized world of which Russia is now a part.

Within this achievement of spiritual growth Orthodox Christians believe that the Church always has “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Called to be perfect as Christ Himself, Christians are not to be preoccupied with the unmasking and rejection of Judaism or with the wiles of Western ideology.

“One’s Own” vs “The Stranger”

What does “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” imply for Orthodox Christianity when it confronts ethical and religious questions regarding “one’s own” and “the stranger”, about unity and plurality? My response begins with the teaching of the Gospel as interpreted by the Orthodox holy tradition rather than the historical experience of the Orthodox Church, which includes “cooperation with the state.” I distinguish Orthodox-based ideology from the Orthodox faith itself, as Dr. Sacks does when speaking about Judaism. He refers to the Scriptures and not to the historical practice of Jews which at times includes episodes of proselytism and religious intolerance.

By Orthodox ethics I mean first of all the teaching and life of Jesus Christ Himself, including His Cross which is the answer to all of the world’s questions. After Auschwitz the theological problem of “theocide” has been propounded anew. The fact that Jesus was crucified by practically all the “forces” representing the spiritual ethos of the time is crucial for our understanding of Christ’s mission. Summarizing the recorded events, the Acts of the Apostles says that the perpetrators of Christ’s crucifixion were “both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel.” (Acts 4:27) Let us define the spiritual ethos of each of these “forces”.

Pontius Pilate, a person for whom the Law of Moses meant nothing, personifies the Roman ideology which presupposed a unity of mankind - a unity based on a common human nature of whose laws the Romans claimed superior knowledge and understanding. The Roman imperialist ideology, based on belief in the god-like nature of the emperor, implied that Pilate personified “natural law” which found expression in the Roman legal code. Historically the Romans are often portrayed along with their conquered nations, a portrayal corresponding to the classical dyad of “the one and the many” described in the New Testament as “Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles.” As understood in Rome, “the many” are “the alien” who must be included in the One and subordinate to it. This dyad - in which there is room for “the alien”, for non-Roman tribes and their gods, but not for “the Other” - is the dyad of “universal monotheism” and “polytheistic tribalism” which, according to Dr. Sacks, in its essence is overcome by Judaism.

In the Acts of the Apostles account of the crucifixion the “people of Israel” represent the Law of Moses whose ethical essence is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Unlike natural law which is based on the notion of a common human nature, the Law of Moses is based on the concept of the human person. “The Other”, a person like myself, must be loved as I love myself. The Law’s ethic presupposes a community in which all members relate to each other in the same way. It allows for some openness to strangers. However, those who converted to Judaism had to become assimilated to the Jewish people if they accepted the Law, or remain forever outside the community of Israel if they did not accept the Law. That this was the case even if the stranger believed in One God is still evident today in modern Israel where Arabs, Muslims and Christians exemplify this.

Herod, a marginal but essential figure in the Christ story, is among those who crucified Christ. Undoubtedly subservient to Rome, Herod is also a Jew - although one of the Edomite descendants of Esau forcibly converted to Judaism by John Hyrcanus in 126 BCE. In the New Testament story Herod appears to personify the “stranger”: a stranger to the Jews because he is not Jewish by blood; a stranger to the Romans because he is a “Jew”. However, his very ambiguous position also allows him to be perceived as “one of theirs” by both Jews and Romans. Herod, in his pandering to the Romans, the Gentiles and the Jews while keeping his own interests in mind, is a foil for Christ who accepts death at their hands.

Natural Law vs. The Law Of Moses

In the Gospel the antagonism between natural law and the Law of Moses is overcome in Christ as well as by the “strangeness” and ambiguity personified in Herod. It is of utmost importance that Christ voluntarily suffer crucifixion not only as a man but also as a Jew by flesh. The Son of God, according to Christian teaching, received His flesh from His Mother, a Jewess, thus confirming that Israel is the Lord’s firstborn. (cf. Ex 4:22) However being a Jew by birth, Christ submitted to the Law of Moses and became “a Jew according to the flesh.” Yet, since He is actually God Who gave this Law, Christ was the Master of the Law and free from it. It was for this freedom from the Law as well as for His freedom from the Roman Law that Christ was sentenced to death. By accepting the sentence passed by the Jews according to the Law, Christ did not annul the Law as something not given by God. However, he did not become a servant of it, and it was for this freedom from the Law that he was sentenced to death. Herod personified those who accepted the Law against their will while also being subservient to the natural law of Rome, also against their will. Christ, a Jew according to the flesh, goes beyond both of these positions. Because the Law was not something “alien” for Him as it was for Herod, He obeyed the Law naturally. Yet, unlike the Jews, Christ was also free from the Law since as Logos, before becoming Man, he was incarnated in the Law (both the natural law and the Law of Moses) and therefore free from it. Because this freedom did not suppose a rejection of the Law, He accepted the sentence. Being, according to the flesh, a man as well as a Jew, Christ also submitted to Pilate who, as a Gentile and a Roman, personifies natural law.

So Christ and those Christians who have attained the stature of Christ do not stand in opposition to the natural law or the Law of Moses. In accepting death voluntarily Christ exhibited complete freedom concerning the values of Roman law and the Law of Moses. He did not side with the Jews against the Romans, nor with the Romans against the Jews, nor did he accept the ambiguous position exhibited by Herod.

Like two thousand years ago when they crucified Christ, both of these forces are at work in the world today: universal monotheism and quasi-polytheistic tribalism on the one hand, and particularist monotheism on the other. There are forces maneuvering between these poles as well. Yet Christianity, having attained the stature of the fullness of Christ, will never side with any of these forces. Moreover, it will probably be crucified by these forces which, though they appear to be opposed, are in reality connected in a deep dialectical way. Whereas the dyad “universal monotheism-polytheism” does solve the problem of “one’s own” and “alien”, it does not solve that of “the other”. Particularist monotheism does solve the problem of “the other”, but does not fully solve that of “one’s own” and “alien”. For Orthodox Christians the Cross of Christ is the answer to overcoming the opposition between “one’s own,” “alien” and “other”. Historically, Christianity has often been very far from the truth of the Cross. This does not mean, however, that true Christianity has never existed. Just as the ethics of Judaism has been completely fulfilled by only a few, so only a few have attained the truth of the Cross. The Orthodox Church calls these few “saints”, though every Christian is called to strive for sainthood.

Since the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world, sainthood implies not siding with any of the ideologies dominating the world. However, simple negation is not enough. Christianity also affirms here on earth the Kingdom of the age to come. In Orthodoxy a Christian answer to the world’s question about “one’s self”, the “other” and the “alien” is given by the family, the community and the Church respectively. The Orthodox family and Orthodox community are unthinkable without the Church which answers the most difficult problem of “other People” or “the alien”. In the Orthodox Church the attitude towards “other People” is not as meek as in Judaism where, according to Sacks, the “alien” are “strangers” whom one must love as much as “one’s own”. However, the “alien” may be anything but poor, weak and homeless strangers. They may be more powerful, consider themselves more civilized, and attempt to enforce on others their economic, political and religious views. They may be “aliens” who do not want to be loved by us as “our own”, who do not need our love, who on the contrary insist on our becoming “their own” and entering their ranks. Judaism, I believe, does not explain how it is possible to love such “aliens”. Totalitarian monotheism not only does not preach love for such “aliens’, it also assumes their role.

Through figures such as the suffering servant of Is 53, the Hebrew Bible begins to address this question. Some Jewish thinkers interpret this figure as Israel, suffering for the sins of the whole world so that Messiah will come. This interpretation, however, differs from that of Christian theology. In the Jewish interpretation the suffering servant aims to explain the suffering of the Jewish people which has already occurred, whereas Christian thinking stresses voluntary acceptance of the Cross to save the world through and in imitation of Christ. That is why Christians, in reference to Israel according to the flesh, speak first of all of the voluntary acceptance of suffering.

It is by understanding the Church as the Body of Christ suffering the crucifixion in Him, that the Orthodox Church determines the attitude to assume towards “aliens” who are no mere “strangers” but who display real enmity to the Church. The Patriarch of Moscow, Alexiy I (Simanskiy) states: “The Church is the Body of Christ, crucified that its tormentors might be saved.”2 Like Christ, the Church in the persons of its saints, accepts torment but does not side with any of the forces at work in this world. This does not postulate, however, that suffering is obligatory for all Christians. Since nobody has the right to condemn another to suffering, Crucifixion is voluntary, taken by the saints upon themselves. It is these saints who provide the answer about the Christian attitude towards “aliens”, an answer which has implications for morality and the effect of holiness upon society.

According to the Church the problem of the “other” is solved within the Christian community where all persons confirm their own individual existence and develop their own individual features. This is fully accomplished to the extent that the community itself is a true church community, i.e., when it suffers crucifixion in Christ and along with Christ for the sake of the world’s salvation. The problem of “one’s own” is solved within the Christian family which would appear, by its own nature, to be extremely closed. Having its own interests it seems fundamentally opposed to those of the community. Nonetheless, it is the world, not the community, which threatens the family. The community and the Church are able to save the family, at the same time as a Christian family can enrich the community and the Church.

This faith of the Church can be illustrated with the example of Mother Maria Skobtsova who left her family, husband and children to fully devote herself as a nun to saving Jews from the Nazis in France and to helping needy Russian emigrants. Both she and her son suffered martyrs’ deaths. The Jews became her own rodnie (Russian: those who have the same origin or Mother-country, kinsmen), removing all opposition between “one’s own”, “others”, and “strangers”.3

The Twentieth Century Challenge

The twentieth century experience of the Nazi persecution of the Jews has shown that the church has a right to call itself Israel only insofar as it does not separate itself from Israel according to the flesh. In quite the same way the Church has a right to call itself the New Humanity only insofar as it does not separate itself from all humanity. In voluntarily accepting the Cross the Church is crucified by any separations in the world caused by ideologies.

Having shed his blood for the people Christ, according to St. Paul, established peace between “those that were nigh” and “those which were afar off” (between Jews and non-Jews), because from that time on both have through Him access unto the Father by one Spirit (cf. Eph 2:17,18). The Gentiles who have accepted the Cross of Christ have stopped being strangers and foreigners; they have become fellow citizens with the saints and with the household of God. (cf. Eph 2:19) Therefore, while the ethical culmination of Judaism lies in the commandment to love “strangers”, Christianity’s aim is to totally remove the distinction between “one’s own” and “strangers”, a distinction vulnerable to envy and enmity.

For a saint every person is not an enemy, whether the person is among the persecuted or the persecutors. A saint is able to separate the person from the sin committed by the person. We never meet the persecuted (strangers, orphans, widows, exiles) alone, but always in the company of those who persecute, despise and exclude them from life. It is essential to find a proper attitude in this situation where the “other” comes to us, as it were, accompanied by his “enemy”. Defending the persecuted often requires active measures to resist the persecutors - an effort which may include killing perpetrators or limiting their freedom. Society and individual members of society must assume these functions. In an effort to justify these punitive measures the state and society tend to create ideologies which foster hatred and contempt for criminals, oppressors and tyrants. These ideologies in turn give room to hatred, and then seem to feed on it. The unity of the state then becomes based not only on positive values but on the hatred of enemies as well - a situation in which the defense of some people leads to making pariahs of others.

The experience of the saints, however, teaches us to relate to the persecuted “other” in such a way that the persecutor, his “enemy”, is not excluded from Being. When necessity demands that a person be deprived of life it is because this person is possessed by the spirit of hatred and evil - a case in which the death is seen as a cessation of deadly sin. No person may be damned or hated, i.e., excluded from the eternal Being. According to the letter of Jude, even the Devil may not be damned. (cf., Jude 1:9) We must not let hatred possess us, whether defending our own life or the lives of innocent victims. This social rule exemplified by the saints, is essential for public morality and for saving society from ideological hypnosis.

One can say that Western ideology is not successful in Russia today, not because of the influence of the old communist ideology but because of the peoples’ unwillingness to accept any ideology. This situation has its positive as well as its negative sides. It is dangerous insofar as Russia, while rejecting western ideology, also fails to assimilate the values of an open society. These values presuppose, among other things, the defense of the weak, the handicapped, and minorities. The Patriarchate also fails to resolutely and persistently defend the values of an open society. It sometimes even rejects them. There is a lack of understanding that these values are distinct from the ideology of today’s western consumer society. The first of these realities is to be assimilated; the latter, which includes hatred and contempt for the “enemies”, is to be rejected.

Communists, nationalists and sectarians are empowered today by being perceived as civilized society’s hated, despised and exiled ones. Their status as exiles and their romanticized disguise as the persecuted appear attractive, particularly to the young who are searching for justice but who do not have an adequate understanding of the history which preceded them. In this context it would be possible for the Church to bring to society messages regarding: how to survive without having recourse to ideology, western or any other; how to be a society in which “strangers” find refuge and where all have the right to disagree with the opinion or faith expression of the majority. While “the enemies of the Church and of the Motherland,” if there are such, must clearly be punished with the utmost rigor, no one may be hated. Only in this way is it possible to embrace the values of an open society (values which are not alien to authentic Orthodox tradition) without lapsing into Western ideological hypnotism. It can also help save Russia from sliding into communo-fascism or any other form of dictatorship. While only a few are able to love everybody as their kinsmen, all can abstain from hatred, condemnation and contempt.

It is impossible for the state, civil society, and all citizens of a society to fulfill the commandment “thou shalt not kill” unless it is interpreted in the very limited sense of a prohibition to kill the defenseless. In Christianity, which is considered more ethically unrealistic than Judaism, this commandment is nuanced by Christ’s remarks that what matters most is not so much the murder itself, but the hatred, condemnation and contempt which accompany it. These roots of all murder must be eradicated first. (cf. Mt 5:21-25) Emmanuel Levinas and others remark that “thou shalt not kill” supposes not only a refusal to use violence against the peaceful and the defenseless, but to also to give shelter to and save the persecuted. While it is impossible not to agree with this, one must be aware that the latter often involves resisting the persecutors and depriving them of life. It is in this that the Christian moral principles prohibiting hatred must take effect or else the souls of the “host” and his “guest”, infected by their hatred of the enemy, may perish as well. Christianity, by broadening the confines of the commandment of the Law, eliminates the need to physically kill the enemy. By refusing to deprive a hateful person of life Christianity, by not returning his hatred, effects at once the salvation of the persecutor, the persecuted and the defender helping to extinguish the gehenna enkindled by the hatred of Satan in the world.

Christ’s Act of self-sacrifice has canceled neither the values of natural law nor the values of the Law of Moses. However, it defeats the spirits of anger, hatred and discord which seek to cling to these values as parasites. This sacrifice serves to unite all people in God by overcoming not only the opposition between “one’s own” versus “the stranger” or the opposition between “one’s self” versus “others’, but by overcoming alienation itself - the alienation of human beings from themselves, from others and from God. It serves to defeat the last enemy - death. (cf. I Cor 15:26)

The Orthodox Church believes that in Christ all can become one family according to the new birth given from on high, by being born of the Holy Spirit and adopted by the Father. Even those who do not desire to be part of our family in Christ we can love through the Cross of Christ in the Holy Spirit as our own kinsmen, thus showing the way to our true native country, the Heavenly Kingdom. If we are unable to love them as our own kinsmen we can at least, out of respect for the saints, try to abstain from hatred, condemnation and contempt. This is the principal conclusion that can be drawn from the heroic deeds of the holy martyrs of the twentieth century. It is also the main hope and belief of the Church. It is with this ancient but not outdated hope that the church may successfully enter the twenty-first century without fearing that she may be left behind in the spiritual progress of humankind. Above all, with this hope the Church remains what it always has been, the earnest first fruits of humanity’s salvation. If the Church does not remain true to this hope, if it reacts in a totalitarian manner to particularist monotheism or submits to it, the Orthodox Church will cease to be herself. It is my hope and belief that this shall not be the case.

* Grigori Benevitch teaches at the School of Religion and Philosophy in St. Petersburg, Russia. This is an edited and abbreviated version of his paper presented in 1998 in St. Petersburg at a continuation of the 1997 International Scholars’ Conference on Theology after Auschwitz and the Gulag. The original paper was translated from Russian by G. Nachinkin.
1 Dr. Sacks’ paper, The Other - Jews and Christians was presented at the ICCJ International Colloquium, Rocca di Papa (Rome), Sept. 7-10, 1997, and is published in From the Martin Buber House (ICCJ) No. 25, Spring, 1998, pp. 31-42.
2 Cited from the article On New Russian Martyrs by L. ll’iunina in Pravoslavnii Peterburg (Orthodox Petersburg) No. 6, 1993.
3 Mr. Benevitch, through a 1997 grant (N1532) from the RSS Programme (Research Support Scheme) in Prague, was able to do theological research on the life of Mother Maria Skobtsova. He expresses his gratitude to the organizers of the program.


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