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Misrepresenting Christians at Mount Zion: Sad lessons from Shavuot/Pentecost

A combative ultra-Orthodox stance spurred by the Shavuot-Pentecost convergence is 'pseudo-halacha'

Jerusalem, the Old City. Early morning, Shavuot. As I do every year, I go for a ritual bath in the old city mikve. This year a message is posted on the bulletin board that catches my attention. The message is in the traditional “question and answer” form, addressed to the two figureheads of ultra Orthodoxy, Rabbis Shteinman and Kanievsky. This brief message seems to encapsulate almost all that is wrong in contemporary ultra-Orthodox halacha, politics and public relations in relation to Christians and Christianity. The message is local, but its message is much broader. It relates to the coincidence this year of Shavuot and Pentecost. It considers the coincidence of the festivals a threat, localized in one of the most explosive sites in the Holy Land – Mount Zion.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest Christian presence at King David's Tomb, Old City of Jerusalem photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest Christian presence at King David’s Tomb, Old City of Jerusalem photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Mount Zion is considered by Jews as the burial place of King David, whose annual feast day is Shavuot (hence the reading of Ruth on Shavuot). It is also considered by Christians as the place where Jesus and his disciples held the Last Supper. Regardless of historical veracity, both religious communities project focal points of significance for their religious identity within the same region, within the same cluster of buildings. The room of the final supper, the cenacle, is also considered the site of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples on Pentecost. Thus, both religious communities have particular attachment to one building, an attachment that found expression this year on the same day, as Shavuot and Pentecost were celebrated. This is the background to the following question and answer:

Question: Given that this year the feasts of Jews and Christians coincide and the missionary Christians intend to hold spiteful prayers at the tomb of King David, should Jews avoid going to David’s tomb on Shavuot in order to avoid association with idolatry (Avoda Zara)?

Answer: Jews should not avoid going to David’s tomb on Shavuot. On the contrary. They should go and pray for all idolatry to be abolished.

The answer shows the common sense of the these two religious leaders. The prayer for abolishment of idolatry is stock Jewish prayer, that is repeated thrice daily and does not constitute in any way a call to violence or action against Christians. In terms of common practice as well as of identity politics it is a means of affirming identity. One should not forego one’s claims, religious feelings or practices, simply because they conflict with those of another.

Fair enough, though one wonders why the logic couldn’t be extended both ways, to affirm and respect the mutual claims of both communities.

An Israeli policeman asks a Jewish man reciting the Psalm of David to leave the Cenacle or Upper Room on Mount Zion just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, on May 21, 2014. The site, on the itinerary of Pope Francis's visit to the Holy Land, is also considered holy to Jews and Muslims. (photo credit: AFP/ CONSTANCE DECORDE)
An Israeli policeman asks a Jewish man reciting the Psalm of David to leave the Cenacle or Upper Room on Mount Zion just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, on May 21, 2014. The site, on the itinerary of Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land, is also considered holy to Jews and Muslims. (photo credit: AFP/ CONSTANCE DECORDE)
Jewish extremists protest at the Cenacle, or Upper Room, on Mount Zion just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, against Christian pilgrims praying there for Pentecost, on June 9, 2014 .The Cenacle, or Upper Room, on Mount Zion is in a two-story building considered holy to both Christians and Jews, who regard it as the place where the biblical figure David was buried. photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Jewish extremists protest at the Cenacle, or Upper Room, on Mount Zion just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, against Christian pilgrims praying there for Pentecost, on June 9, 2014. The Cenacle, or Upper Room, on Mount Zion is in a two-story building considered holy to both Christians and Jews, who regard it as the place where the biblical figure David was buried. photo: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

The real issue lies in the framing of the question:

“The missionary Christians”
Framing the question this way suggests all Christians are missionaries. Moreover, it suggests that the explicit purpose of holding prayers at the Cenacle on Pentecost is missionary. Sadly, there are Christian missionaries. Just as sadly, ultra-Orthodox, as well as most Orthodox, authorities are unable to distinguish the large majority of non-missionary Christians from those who do practice mission.

The Christian authority entrusted with guarding the Christian holy places is the Franciscan Custody, a branch of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church does not practice mission to the Jews, categorically so. The heads of the Franciscan custody are friendly to Jews and maintain dialogue and collaboration with state and religious officials. It is they who are leading the call for permission for Christian worship on Mount Zion.

To lump all Christians under the rubric of missionaries is an effective conversation stopper. We must obviously do all we can to protect Jewish identity and, as missionaries threaten it, we must oppose anything initiated by them. But missionaries are ultra-Orthodox straw-men that relieve Orthodoxy of the need to negotiate respectfully with mainline Churches led by the Catholic Church, who have made unprecedented advances in respectful recognition of Jews and Judaism.

This year marks 50 years since the landmark declaration that led to a revolution in the Catholic view of Judaism, affirming its enduring validity. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis who are addressed in this responsum have most likely never heard of this declaration, nor of its beneficial educational outcomes in the global Church. They are open to only one narrative, that of religious competition and the ensuing seduction of conversion to Christianity. The reality of cordial, respectful relations that is gaining momentum in other parts of the Jewish world does not cross the threshold of their awareness of contemporary reality.

“Praying to spite”
One recognizes both traditions share or compete, during the same time and place. But what does it mean to present the other’s prayer not as an act of sincere worship but of spiteful presence? For one, it takes away from one’s ability to validate and accept the other. Christians do not pray sincerely. They do this and that to spite us. And herein lies the deeper problem – the entire discourse shows an inability to see the other as other. The other is seen only from one’s own perspective, as a threat, a spiteful presence. Needles to say, this is an unsophisticated, even primitive, view of the other, in terms of psychological development, education, diplomacy and public relations. What if Christians portrayed Jews in similar terms? Thankfully, most Christians no longer do.

A halachic question?
The entire discussion is founded on application of a central halachic (Jewish legal) category. Appealing to halacha seems to introduce an incontestable power, one that forces the listener to reject Christianity as the worst kind of theological enemy — idolatry. In fact, so much of the present-day struggle around Mount Zion revolves around the claim that Jews and Christians cannot coexist due to Christianity’s status as avoda zara (idolatry). How could a synagogue be located under a house of idolaters? This is the argument echoed by Jewish spokespersons for the cause of Mount Zion. However, the argument should be characterized as pseudo-halachic, appealing as it does to halachic grounds, while abandoning the foundations of proper halachic reasoning.

David's Tomb, Old City Jerusalem
David’s Tomb, Old City Jerusalem

Whether or not Christianity is recognized as monotheistic and free of Avoda Zara is a subject that has engaged the attention of Jewish authorities for over a thousand years. Over this period various positions were articulated. As is typical of halachic discourse, it is a nuanced, textured discussion, that has room for multiple opinions. Its wise application is entrusted to rabbinic authorities who would have the good common sense of knowing what position to apply and when.

Sadly, at the same time that the Christian Church has made significant advances in its view of Judaism, Jewish authorities seem to be in regression in relation to Christianity. Hundreds of years of rabbinic discourse have been thrown overboard in favor of contemporary ultra-Orthodox politics that knows of only one rabbinic position. What used to be a majority opinion — that Christianity should not be considered idolatrous — has been all but obliterated from collective memory. This seems to be one of the unhappy consequences of gaining independence and of the increased self-confidence that finds expression in a ghettoized mentality that can not accommodate the other. Halachic procedures are built upon memory and the continuing engagement in a discourse of wise and nuanced negotiation of multiple opinions. When this mentality affects halachic procedures, it spells disaster not only for how Christians are viewed, but for the very fabric and integrity of internal Jewish discourse.

To cite but one relevant example to the contrary — the first Chief Rabbi of Israel (and grandfather of one contender in recent Israeli elections), Rabbi Isaac Herzog, issued a ruling that Christians may construct houses of worship and practice their religion in the state of Israel, basing himself on the long (majoritarian) tradition that Christianity is not idolatrous. The important work of this Chief Rabbi has been forgotten not only by ultra-Orthodox decisors, but also by later incumbents of his own chair.

One asks: What would the reality of present-day Mount Zion look like if the views of Rabbi Herzog, and the long tradition he represents, had the upper-hand? Could we imagine relations of courtesy, respect and coexistence on the Holy Mount? And what would be the implications for how Israel is viewed in the world if rabbinic tradition were practiced authentically, rather than the simplified, monolithic, Christian-fearing tradition that it has been reduced to by Ultra Othrodoxy?

One off the many associations of Shavuot is that it is the feast of “first fruits”. First fruits allow us to appreciate anew the fruits of the trees we have tasted and known for years. Perhaps the coincidence of Shavuot and Pentecost invites us to a rediscovery of the fruits of halacha, that could lead to a more truthful, welcoming and trusting view of the other.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.

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About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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