Why the Jews?

[First posted in 2012. We’ve often been asked the same question and have answered much in the same way as the author of the book featured here.—Admin1]




This is a question asked by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book FUTURE TENSE; JEWS, JUDAISM, AND ISRAEL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, specifically Chapter 4 titled:  The Other: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


After recounting what happened at a meeting between Zionist movement leader Theodor Herzl and Pope Pius X when former tried to solicit support for a Jewish state from the latter on January 25, 1904.  As Rabbi Sacks describes:


It was a bitterly disappointing encounter.  The Pope told him, ‘We are unable to favor this movement.  We cannot prevent the Jews from going to Jerusalem — but we could never sanction it . . . As the head of the Church, I cannot answer you otherwise.  The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.  Jerusalem cannot be placed lin Jewish hands.’

‘What if Jews do not go into Jerusalem, but only to the other parts of the land’ Herzl asked the Pope.


‘We cannot be in favor of it,’ the Pope replied.  Only if Jews were prepared to convert to Catholicism could he support them. ‘And so,’ he continued, ‘if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we shall have churches and priests ready to baptize all of you.’  Only in 1993 did the Vatican formally recognize the state of Israel.


Sacks says that “Jews have long had difficulty finding the space to be: to have their integrity, their right to live on their own terms, recognized by others.  In extremis, this becomes (not in the case of Pope Pius X, but in others) the phenomenon known as antisemitism . . . . ” After citing some theories given to understand the roots of antisemitism, he says none of these succeed in answering the question: Why the Jews? Here’s the rest of the chapter:


Hate has attached to many groups in the course of history, but none with the persistence of hatred of the Jews for 2000 years.  Besides which, there were great civilizations in which Jews lived (albeit not in large numbers), notably India and China, that did not give rise to antisemitism at all.  Why not?  Surely Indians and Chinese have the same psychology as everyone else, the same tensions, the same resentments.  Overwhelmingly, antisemitism has arisen in societies that either practiced or were influenced by Christianity and Islam.

No sooner have we noted this than it becomes obvious why.  Christianity and Islam trace their descent to Abraham, and their religious origins to God’s covenant with him.  But so do Jews.  And Judaism, the religion of biblical Israel, has existed twice as long as Christianity, three times as long as Islam.  So Christianity and Islam faced a theological problem:  what about the Jews? Somehow it had to be argued that 2000 years ago in the case of Christianity, or in the 7th century for Islam, something changed.  The Abrahamic covenant was no longer with the Jewish people.


In the case of Christianity, it was argued, from Paul and the Church Fathers onward, that since Jews had rejected the Christian messiah, God had rejected them.  He had made a new covenant and chosen a ‘new Israel’.  Islam put it differently.  Abraham was a Muslim.  The religion he taught was a preparation for Islam.  In any case, the succession did not pass through Isaac as the Bible taught, but through Ishmael.  Hence the difference in the sacred scriptures of these two faiths.  Christianity included the Hebrew Bible but reordered its books to tell a story that culminated in the New Testament.  Islam did not include the Hebrew Bible, since it claimed that Jews — in the account of the binding of Isaac, for example — had falsified events.


Generically, theologies of this kind are called supersessionist, meaning that they argue that the old has been superseded, displaced or replaced, by the new.  The result was to deny legitimacy to Jews because they deny legitimacy to Judaism.  It might have been valid once, but no longer.  Hence the difficult situation of Jews in Christian or Islamic cultures.  By definition, they were less than fully human.  Since they had rejected the dominant faith, God had rejected them, and they bore the stigma of that religion.


This had political consequences.  In the map of reality constructed by these faiths, they lacked conceptual space.  They had no natural home.  According to Augustine, Jews were the embodiment of Cain, condemned to be ‘a restless wanderer on earth’ (Gen. 4:12).  In Islam, Jews, like Christians, were at best dhimmisubject peoples under Islamic rule. In both faiths Jews had been disinherited.  The promise of the land that God had, seven times, given to Abraham was null and void — in a word, superseded. That is what the Pope was trying to explain to Herzl.  Only if you convert do you have a right to live in the Holy Land.


It is important to say that not all Christian theologies are alike, nor were all Christians opposed to the founding of the state of Israel.  Far from it. . . . there were Christians, among them George Eliot and Lord Saftesbury, who actively supported it even before the word Zionism was coined.  Neither Christianity nor Islam had anything to do with the racial antisemitism that led to the Holocaust.  To the contrary, Christians were committed to Jewish survival.  Islamic countries gave refuge to Jews fleeing Christian persecution, most notably the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the Spanish Expulsion.  Both faiths recognized some form of kinship with the Jews, and both at times protected Jews from persecution.


My argument in this chapter is not about antisemitism as such, but about the phenomenon that led to the parting of the ways between Judaism on the one hand and Christianity and Islam on the other.  Christianity and Islam are universal monotheisms.  Judaism is a particularistic monotheism.  It does not claim to be the sole path to salvation.  The righteous of all nations, taught the rabbis, have a share in the world to come.  You do not have to be Jewish to be good, wise or beloved of God.  That is what God taught the prophet Jonah when he expressed dismay that God had forgiven Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians of Nineveh.


The God of Israel is the God of everyone, but the religion of Israel is not the religion of everyone.  Even at the end of days, the prophets did not foresee that the nations of the world would embrace the religion of Israel with its complex code of commands. They would recognize God.  They would come to Jerusalem to pray.  They would beat their swords into ploughshares and wage war no more.  But they would not become Jewish.  Judaism is not a conversionary faith.


Why not?  That is the question.  Christianity and Islam borrowed much from Judaism, but not this.  On the face of it, their approach is more logical.  If God is the God of everyone in general, why did he make a covenant with this people — Jacob’s children — in particular?  A universal God must surely lead to a universal truth, a universal faith.  Why does Judaism embody the tension between the universal and the particular, embracing both, denying neither?  We will not understand Judaism or the modern state of Israel until we find an answer to this question, and to locate it we must turn to the Hebrew Bible itself.


If  the above excerpt piqued your curiosity, there is so much more to learn from Chief Rabbi Sacks. The book is downloadable from amazon.com; here is the Table of Contents to give you an idea of what else to expect:


1.  Story of the People, People of the Story

2.  Is there Still a Jewish People?

3.  Jewish Continuity and How to Achieve it

4.  The Other:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam

5.  Antisemitism:  The Fourth Mutation

6.  A People That Dwells Alone?

7.  Israel, Gateway of Hope

8.  A New Zionism

9.  The Jewish Conversation

10.  Torah and Wisdom: Judaism and the World

11.  Future Tense:  The Voice of Hope in the Conversation of Humankind



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