Schleiermacher: On Judaism

For obvious reasons, the relationship between Christianity and Judaism comes under special examination in the second half of the twentieth century. Christians start looking at the Holocaust, at the systematic murder of millions of Jews, and wonder – did we have something to do with that? They start looking back through the things Christians have said about Judaism throughout history, the things that we’ve done, and the evidence becomes pretty clear. We absolutely had something to do with it. The currents of anti-Semitism that have been circling around Europe for the last couple thousand years are inextricable from Christianity and Christian doctrine.

And – you know, I do want to acknowledge that this is a difficult topic. Christianity is in this position where, historically speaking, it’s an offshoot of Judaism. It was a Jewish sect with a Jewish leader, and some of its most important early thinkers (such as Paul) were also Jewish. Christian self-definition has always been in terms of and often in opposition to Judaism. And it’s not that Christians are bad for staking a claim on an exclusive access to truth and the divine. All religions do that. Everybody thinks they know what’s up better than everybody else. But because Christianity was formed out of Judaism, its doctrines are hinged on specific, intimate claims and counter-claims regarding the true nature and meaning of the Jewish religion and its holy texts. Christianity is built on the reorganization of somebody else’s faith.

And that’s not to say that Christianity is inherently anti-Semitic. I don’t think that this process of reorganization always needs to be hostile towards the Jews. But at the very least, it’s worth keeping a close eye on. It’s worth watching how Christian theologians talk about Judaism, and how that language might feed into the actual treatment of Jews, for better or worse. Sometimes things don’t turn out quite as you’d expect – which brings us to Schleiermacher’s The Christian Faith. First published in 1821, The Christian Faith sets the tone for much of the theological discourse of the two hundred years since. We’ve discussed already Schleiermacher’s idea that a spiritual feeling or impulse is at the core of religion, rather than rules or doctrine. Today, we’ll spell out some of the implications about what that means for the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

  • The text: The Christian Faith
  • The author: Friedrich Schleiermacher
  • Notes: The text is organised by sections, and also ‘paragraphs’ – where each paragraph, so-called, is essentially one individual argument. Today we’re talking about paragraph 12, which is in the Introduction, Chapter 1 section 3.
  • Read it yourself: Originally I was working with a hard copy from the university library back home, but now I’m in Australia again I’m working with a version I accessed online through the State Library. I haven’t found any freely available digital version of this text.

So because Schleiermacher sees spirituality as a pre-rational feeling, rather than a system of doctrine, he doesn’t really mind which religion you eventually settle into. He’ll validate the underlying spiritual instinct even if he doesn’t agree with the form and detail of your religious code. And that potentially loosens up some of the traditional Christian attitudes towards Judaism. For instance, traditional Christianity would say that the Jews were the chosen people of God, carrying His sacred self-revelation in the form of the Mosaic law and the holy books well before the coming of Christ. Schleiermacher isn’t so sure about that. If the core of religion is the spiritual impulse, then that’s something available to everyone, regardless of whether or not they’re Jewish. They might have lived on the other side of the world, in the Americas or down here in Australia – and they would have exactly the same amount of access to God as the Jews, because spirituality is the true fundamental impulse, and all the religious rules and structures are just supplementary scaffolding.

From that perspective, Schleiermacher sees the relationship between Christianity and Judaism as almost just a historical accident. Jesus was born Jewish, sure, but he could have been born into any monotheistic religion and it would have been basically fine. Schleiermacher justifies this point by arguing the differences between Christianity and Judaism. Christianity isn’t just a natural evolution of Judaism, or some sort of Jewish reformation. It’s a whole different thing. If you’re a Jew and you decide to convert to Christianity, you’re converting to a different religion – not just swapping to a different sect under the same umbrella. Jews who convert are expected to change their beliefs, “to give up their reliance upon the law [of Moses], and to put a different interpretation upon the Abrahamitic promises.” In essence, Schleiermacher argues, converting from Judaism into Christianity is the same as converting from any pagan religion into Christianity. In both cases, you’re changing your religion, dumping a bunch of beliefs, and picking up some new ones.

So it’s a pretty scandalous idea, and it’s also unfortunately wrong. It doesn’t take into account, for instance, the ways in which the early Christians very explicitly saw their faith as the fulfilment of Judaism. To take the most obvious example, the Gospel of Matthew opens by demonstrating all of the ways in which Jesus supposedly embodied all of these different Jewish prophecies. It’s always saying things like ‘all this happened to fulfil the words of the prophet’. Matthew 1:23 quotes a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 2:6 quotes Micah 5:2, Matthew 2:18 quotes Jeremiah 31:15 – examples can be further multiplied. It’s just not true to how Christianity has historically understood itself, and how it continues to understand itself. It does offer us a bunch of neat solutions to some ongoing issues, though. For example, it solves the issue where, before Christianity, people could only go to heaven if they were Jews. By putting the spiritual impulse at the core of true religion, Schleiermacher opens up opportunities to affirm that non-Judeo-Christian believers can still have meaningful relationships with God. It also allows him to disregard most of the Old Testament: “almost everything else in the Old Testament [besides the prophecies] is, for our Christian usage, but the husk or wrapping of its prophecy.” That’s great news for the subset of progressive Christians who’re faintly offended by the Old Testament, by all the blood and murder and so on.

But what about the anti-Semitism thing? At first glance, you might see some potential in Schleiermacher’s idea for avoiding that issue. If Christianity is disconnected from Judaism, except through this historical accident of the birth of Christ, then there isn’t any need for Christians to comment on Judaism. They can just leave them alone, like they do everyone else, and get on with their separate lives. I’m not totally sure about that attitude, though. Schleiermacher comes off as hesitant to extend any validity to Judaism. In his reading of Paul in Galatians 3, he suggests that the faith of Abraham was “the prototype of the Christian faith,” and that the Mosaic Law was simply “something slipped in between.” He notes that the Jewish faith had absorbed non-Jewish elements “during and after the Babylonian Dispersion,” and suggests that “Christianity would not have been received by the Jews even as much as it was, had they not been permeated by those foreign elements.” There’s just this underlying sense that he doesn’t have a very high opinion of Judaism. He might be trying to separate Judaism from Christianity, but if he’s doing it because he doesn’t like the Jewish faith, that’s not really helpful. A theology that more closely intertwined Christianity with Judaism, affirming the trajectory of the Jews as God’s chosen people while also affirming the New Covenant through Christ, might actually have more to offer in terms of validating Judaism in and for itself, therein refusing any ideological support for violent anti-Semitism. Given our history, that’s something we need to be thinking about.

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