Jonathan Ferguson
The New Understanding: Post-Secular Pluralism and Universalism!

Happy Rosh Hashanah: But Who are We Talking to?

A truly blessed and peaceful Rosh Hashanah everyone!

I hope it has gone very well for all of you.

At this time, it’s worthwhile for Christians to consider how we talk about this term. ‘We’ is a much overused word; but in the context of the headline of this article, and these reflections, it refers to those who follow the Christian faith, and who thus cannot but have a deeply complex relationship with Jews, and with the Jewish faith.

I decided to look for a particular phrase today online.

Unsurprisingly, I found the following statement from 2013:

Happy New Year (Rosh Hashanah) to our Jewish sisters and brothers!

I was rather dreading that this year, the same greeting would come round again; have you seen any examples?

I am aware from my own anecdotal experience, which is not in itself fully generalisable, that there are clergy who do refer to Jews as brothers and sisters.

I will not go so far as to say that such statements are motivated by deliberate bad faith or malice, but I have to say that it is truly troubling.

Given centuries of Christian and Islamic antisemitism, simply presuming that Jews are obliged to consider us Christians (or to consider Muslims) their brothers and sisters, without Jews having any say in the matter themselves, seems grossly presumptuous. This is probably not a conscious presumption, but it does seem to be implicit in the notion that Jews are the (spiritual) brothers and sisters of Christians.

There are a number of problems with the liberty some Christians are taking here.

First of all, the orthodoxy of this view, in Christian terms, is contentious at best.

Secondly, if people of all faiths, or perhaps even of all faiths and none, are brothers and sisters…

Then what are Christians to each other?

(One could of course ask the same question of Jews; it is well known that generally speaking, Jews have not had the luxury of disdaining to stick together. Their age-old, unjustifiable persecution has seen to that).

Thirdly, and this is what I really want to focus on this Rosh Hashanah:

Shouldn’t Jews get to be the arbiters of who is or is not their spiritual brother or sister?

The idea of forcing brotherhood or sisterhood upon someone else against their will is not only emotional violence, but also spiritual violence; even national-historical, world-historical, civilisational violence. Those who, presuming upon their position of historical dominance over Jews, label them as their brothers and sisters, without stopping to consider the sentiments of Jews themselves, are committing a number of tragic errors.

They assume that they are the arbiters of who Jews can or cannot be brothers or sisters with.

They deny the distinctive character of the Jewish faith, and the uniqueness of the Jewish people.

They promote politically correct ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ over the feelings of Jews.

They dare to wish away millennia of violent persecution, as well as some highly questionable theology, as though the relationship between Jews and Christians were not an extraordinarily tormented and conflicted one.

It makes me sad to see that so many Christians think we have the right to insist that people of a completely different faith are obliged to be our spiritual brothers and sisters.

It is very positive to have friends of other faiths; but to have brothers and sisters is an especially intimate and sensitive relationship. As Christians, we should beware of wounding and insulting Jews, by taking their intimacy and love for granted.
We do not have the right to be the brothers and sisters of Jews. They have their traditions, and we have ours. So why do so many of us act in such a disturbingly arrogant presumptuous manner?

Unfortunately, it needs to be said, without the slighest trace of equivocation or moral compromise, that all this benevolent white Christian guilt of sisterhood-seeking and brotherhood-mongering comes across as desperately weak and needy. However, instead of manifesting such an attitude of cravenly, cowardly paternalism, Christians should be able to stand proud in our own traditions without begging intimacy and affection from others.

For if we impose on others the coerced yoke of an unsolicited brotherhood and sisterhood, we may avoid the worst ravages of the most explicitly brutal and vicious kinds of antisemitism; but we still place ourselves in a most unhelpful and degrading position as the benefactors and guardians of Jews, who know better than Jews themselves who they ought to love, and to what degree, and in what manner.

I am not the brother of any Jew; any more than of any Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu or atheist. We may of course be brothers and sisters in a general humanistic manner; in the sense that ‘All Men are Brothers,’ to quote an old Chinese saying. But in confessional terms, we can be no more than friends. We all have a different understanding of God, and different ideas on how to serve him. Jews have their covenant, we have ours, and people of yet other faiths have their own convictions, aspirations and duties also.

This year, I am not going to wish ‘a Happy New Year to our Jewish Brothers and Sisters.’

But I do wish a heartfelt Rosh Hashanah to the Jews; to the special people God has chosen for his own, by way of his incrutable and wondrous decree.

May we all serve to seek and bear the Light as best we can, both in this world and in the World to Come.

About the Author
Dr Jonathan Thomas Ferguson is an alumnus of the University of Leeds and King's College London. He is interested in interfaith dialogue, international relations, the Apocalypse of Hope and spiritual matters generally.
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